Thursday, September 2, 2010

60s Illustrators are Peachy Keen: Margaret Keane's Big Eyed Wonders

image: the lovely whoreange

I've long been obsessed with the work of 1960s artist Margaret Keane. When most people hear the name "Keane" they think of the somewhat cheesy big-eyed orphan paintings. What most people don't know is that Margaret Keane's early work is very different. She painted some of the most deliciously languid and lovely mod portraits around. The big dreamy eyes were still there....but these paintings are decidedly more grown up. I have a few prints of hers and an amazing book with excellent photo plates. I thought it would be fun to take a look! (This post goes out to my sweet friend Danielle, of Kistchy Digitals. Thanks for asking me about Margaret Keane and inspiring this post. You're gonna love it, I promise!)

See what I mean? Totally dreamy....let's go in a little closer, shall we? I love these petulant girls sipping their coffee:

This next one is quite interesting. A portrait within a portrait. The young girl looking somewhat realistic and the canvas portraying the more classic big-eyed version.

While we are on the topic of the "classic Keane" look, allow me to dazzle you with a little of the history behind the Legend of Keane. It's a good story. Back in the 60s, Walter Keane was known as the Master of the Big Eyed Waifs. His images were largely of young children with hauntingly sad eyes. Walter and Margaret opened up a gallery in 1959 in New York. Walter was the consummate business man and the story goes that he would often leave faux packing cases addressed to famous movie stars so people would walk in and say, "Oooh, Dean Martin is buying one? I better get one before the prices go up!" Crafty, eh?

Throughout the '60s, the popularity of Keane paintings soared. Stars like Joan Crawford, Natalie Wood, Dean Martin, Dinah Shore, Liberace and even Zsa Zsa Gabor all owned original Margaret Keane paintings. My favorite is this picture of Jerry Lewis and his family. And their pets. All with longing eyes. Totally insane:

In the '70s LIFE magazine declared Keane's paintings to be the most popular art in the western world. They even got a nod in the Woody Allen movie, "Sleeper" (Diane Keaton, presented with a big-eye painting, squeals with delight, "It's Keane, it's pure Keane!").

In 1965, Margaret and Walter went through a bitter divorce—and it was revealed that Margaret was ACTUALLY THE ONE PAINTING ALL THE PAINTINGS! Walter simply took credit for them. It was never clear whether it was because they thought a male artist would have more credibility or if it was because he was a savvy, controlling business man. Either way, Walter was now attempting to stop her from painting "big eyed waifs" claiming he was the one who originated the style. They battled in court for years and finally the case made it to a federal court. The judge requested that they each paint right then and there in the court room. Margaret triumphantly dashed off a quick portrait of a saucer-eyed child looking over a fence....while Walter, in a TOTAL Brady Bunch style maneuver, claimed he couldn't paint because of a neck/shoulder injury. HAH! Needless to say, Margaret won. Bravo Margaret!

Oddly, I'm not as drawn to her more recent work—the post Walter stuff. She said that while she was "living a lie" and letting him take credit, all her paintings had "sad eyes". Her later work (in the 80s and 90s) has "bright eyes" as a result of her new-found happiness (and I think she got religious too, if I'm not mistaken). ANYWAY....let's get back to her sad eyes, shall we?

Soooooo gooood. To date, Margaret Keane's work has been discovered by a new generation and claims fans like John Waters, Tim Burton, Matthew Sweet. David LaChappelle and Kate Hudson (who is slated to star in a movie on her life).

The popularity of Margaret's big-eyed babes inspired a slew of copycats...but I think we'll save that for a follow up post, no? So whatcha think friends....are these paintings terrific or terrifying? As Margaret herself has said, "You either love them or hate them....there really is no in between."

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  1. awesome.. i too am a big fan of keane's earlier work (quelle suprise.. lady, are we separated at birth?) it's like modigliani and a russian icon painting had a mod baby.

    i've never seen the jerry lewis family portrait before but ZUT ALORS its kind of terrifying. i'm thinking jeff koons' take on picasso's 'family of saltimbanques' but with alien children.

    awesome post :D

  2. she is amazing! i really love the girl with the poodle, i would love that hanging in my house!

    thanks for sharing!


  3. These are just fantastic. I LOVE the huge eyes! Just what I need Alix - another obsession. :)

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  5. I vote "Fantastic"! I hadn't heard that courtroom story and was absolutely cheering when I read how she was victorious. Ha! That'll show him!

    That Jerry Lewis portrait is all at once odd and fantastic.

  6. 愛情是一種發明,需要不斷改良。只是,這種發明和其他發明不一樣,它沒有專利權,隨時會被人搶走。............................................................

  7. So wonderfully interesting. I see these pictures quite a bit, and I was excited to see the history behind them.

  8. Yup, another huge Margaret Keane fan here. There is a museum in San Francisco with her work. She became a Jehovah's Witness and is still alive. What talent!

  9. cool! thanks for the info. i knew her work but didn't know the artist!

  10. Ooh, so fabulous! Thanks for sharing :).

  11. Thank you for sharing. Her work is hauntingly mesmerizing.
    I recently acquired a number of limited edition prints and giclees from the early 60's.
    You can see them in my tumblr account in the next 24 hours.

  12. I loved Keene's work in the 60's; it was a part of my childhood. I so wish I owned an original!

  13. Hey, great post!! Possibly skipped over it, so excuse me if the info is already there, but could you tell me the title(s) of the books where you got the photos from??? Thanks a bunch!