Out in the Open

How Margaret Keane helped deceive the art world

Margaret Keane’s paintings were all the rage in the 1960s. Except it was her husband who took the credit—and she kept his secret for years.

Her husband took credit for all her work but when she found out, she 'didn't have the 'courage' to expose him

"Black Lavender," painted by Margaret Keane. (Keane Eyes Gallery, San Francisco, CA)

In the 1960s, Margaret Keane was the most famous artist you didn't know.

Her paintings of sad, big-eyed children were all the rage.

But no one knew she created them, because—unbeknownst to her—Margaret's husband at the time, the late Walter Keane, passed them off as his own.

When Margaret found out what he was doing, she says she was shocked. 
Margaret Keane at the premiere of Big Eyes. (Brad Barket / Stringer)

"When I had a chance and no one was around I confronted him with it, and he had all kinds of excuses. [He said] we needed the money, and it was much easier to sell a painting if people thought they were talking to the artist." 

Margaret also says Walter told her that art is harder to sell by a woman painter.

"I didn't have the courage to stand up to him. I was still very much in love with him."

For eight years, as her paintings grew in popularity, Margaret kept Walter's secret.

She lied to the media, her friends and even to her young daughter.

"I think the financial success did influence me because I did enjoy the lifestyle. But I didn't have any freedom...I felt like there was no turning back." 

She painted the sad-eyed waifs behind a locked door, so no one would discover their deceit.

Margaret also says Walter threatened to have her 'knocked off' if she told anyone. 

But she hit a wall one day, after she left Walter. Margaret says she just couldn't maintain the deceit anymore. It all came out in an interview she was doing.

"I had made up my mind I was never again going to tell a lie. If anybody asked me the truth I would tell them. I blurted it out on the interview," she said.

"It was a wonderful release. Wonderful."

Margaret eventually took Walter to court.
"Blue Moon," painted by Margaret Keane. (Keane Eyes Gallery, San Francisco, CA)

In 1986, the presiding judge asked them both to paint to finally prove who created the big-eyed children. 

"[Walter] claimed he had this terrible pain in his arm all of sudden and he couldn't lift his paint brush. And I picked up my paintbrush and started painting right away," said Margaret.

"I was nervous. When I first started, I dropped the brush."

Margaret won and the fraud was over. The court awarded her four million dollars—but Margaret says Walter never paid her a cent.

"I think that I forgave Walter long before I forgave myself…There is nothing in life more important than having a clean conscience with God."

Margaret's story was told in the 2014 Hollywood feature, Big Eyes.

This story appears in the Out in the Open episode "Deception Effects"

This story originally aired on March 19, 2017