The Fraudulent and Messed-Up Story of the Famous Big Eyes Paintings

Although the paintings known as “big eyes” touched the hearts of thousands of fans, the story behind their making, in the hands of the painter Margaret Doris Hawkins, is sad and full of melancholy.

Isabel Cara

The Fraudulent and Messed-Up Story of the Famous Big Eyes Paintings

With a heart full of tears and insecurities, the painter Margaret Doris Hawkins, best known as Margaret Keane, dedicated her work and inspiration to the creation of images with a uniqueness that no one has been able to recreate in the present day. Her paintings have some characteristic features that transformed them into cult objects in the 70s. Margaret painted children with eyes twice the usual size, which is why they were classified as big eyes. The story behind the enormous eyes is heartbreaking.

For the ancient Greek thinkers, different types of temperaments lead the lives of humans: they said that some people were sanguine, classified as unstable and changeable persons; that there exist beings with a melancholic temperament, who are identified as sad and thoughtful beings; and that people who have a phlegmatic character are full of insecurities and fear, being the ones who suffer the most because their condition is the weakest to face any menace of the world.

In this type of “forced silence,” there are souls who have to suffer a series of adversities before taking courage and facing what is slowly destroying them. It’s kind of a prophecy that the people with the best hearts are the ones who have to sacrifice themselves for others, depriving themselves of their happiness, just like Margaret.

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Margaret Hawkings was born in Tennessee, and from an early age, she showed a great fondness for drawing. She studied Arts in her hometown and finished her studies in New York. During her stay in the city of the great skyscrapers, she met the man that became her first husband, Frank Ulbrich. Everything seemed to be going very well with her and her daughter Jane.

Two years after marrying Frank, everything changed suddenly. Margaret’s dubious character caused many problems within her marriage, which gave her and her husband no other choice but to end that worn-out union and seek a better place for themselves. So, the painter of the big eyes portraits packed her bags and changed her beloved home with her daughter for San Francisco.

Her new life was not easy, and Margaret’s motherly spirit motivated her to find a way to sell her work. One day, in an open-air art market, the artist found a person who she believed was the “man of her life.” Walter Keane was a so-called painter who said he had studied at the leading art schools in Europe. The new couple married in 1955 in Hawaii, and for a time, everything seemed to go well for Margaret, as she believed she had found true happiness.

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As in a curse, her marriage again began to change, this time multiplying the horror of her experience. The first shock for Margaret was to discover that Walter had no artistic ability, and it was obvious that he had not studied Art in Europe or anywhere else. Walter had plagiarized a couple of works with which he had won the heart of the innocent Tennessee artist.

Still, Margaret decided to stay by his side. Her soft temperament took over her again: one more time, she silenced everything she felt. Walter, becoming aware of her character, suggested that he should go out into the streets to sell her portraits while she experimented with her style and increased her catalog. She accepted, of course, without a second thought.

As expected for a phony, Walter began distributing the “big eyes” paintings in nightclubs and galleries, passing himself off as the author of the works. The paintings began to gain popularity, and suddenly, all of Hawaii was talking about Margaret’s work, but without saying her name. She, who was even forced to be locked in her studio, painting for more than 16 hours a day, did not find out about the farce that her husband was carrying out.

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One night, the couple decided to go out to a bar to celebrate another “sale” when suddenly someone approached them and commented on how well her husband painted portraits of big-eyed children. Margaret confronted the liar, who admitted his misdoing but managed to persuade her to go through with what he called a “mild deception” because, according to him, it was the only way the paintings would sell. Margaret, without the means to financially support her daughter, agreed to the arrangement.

What did continue was the suffering of an artist who, due to her lack of spirit’s strength, could not put an end to a life that little by little was leading her to destruction. She allowed that man to be filled with glory at the cost of a lie. The big eyes paintings conquered the public and began to be reproduced massively through calendars, posters, and in the printings of different commercial products.

After 10 years of torture, Margaret finally decided to part ways with Walter. He retired to Hawaii, where he married a third time and became adept in Jehovah’s religion. For many years, she kept sending Walter paintings in secret, remaining to be prey to her weak character, until one day, she decided to pluck up her courage and face the man who manipulated her and destroyed her dignity with lies and blackmail. She finally revealed the fraud in a radio interview in 1970.

This fraudulent story of the sad-eyed children painter moved filmmaker Tim Burton, who commissioned Margaret to paint a portrait of him, his wife, and his son since he was a big fan of her work since childhood. Later, he decided to portray her story in the film Big Eyes (2014), in which Margaret is played by Amy Adams, and Christoph Waltz gives life to Walter.

Story originally published in Spanish in Cultura Colectiva