Keane’s paintings were fabulously successful with the public, who not only bought her paintings, but the plates, prints, and a whole range of franchised home goods decorated in her signature style — waifs and children staring out mournfully with big, dark eyes, perhaps clutching at a small animal.
Keane’s life story is an exceptional one, so much so that it was told in the movie “Big Eyes” (2014), directed by Tim Burton, a long time collector of her work. She developed her painting style in her childhood. After an operation as a toddler left her hard of hearing, she focused on people’s facial expressions, especially their eyes, to glean meaning where her ears couldn’t. Depictions of large, meaningful eyes followed.
After Keane met her husband, Walter Keane, he began selling her paintings, but it wasn’t until later that she discovered he was selling them as if they were his creation. For the majority of her career, Walter passed off her paintings as his own, insisting that his wife was a mere amateur or, at best, a good assistant. In fact she was a lone art factory, producing work for a kitsch-hungry America day in and day out in the basement of their home.
In a 2014 Times interview, Keane admitted to lacking the “sense” or “courage” to stand up to her husband, yet, she had good reason to be afraid of him. In court, she testified that Walter threatened her life and the life of her daughter (from her previous marriage) if she told anyone the truth.
In the end, the question of who painted those big-eyed characters was put to rest in a Honolulu court in 1986 where Keane and Walter faced each other in a paint-off. Keane managed to produce a work, Walter didn’t.
Though critics derided Keane’s work, her paintings and story have captured the world’s interest time and time again.