Walter Keane

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Walter Keane
Walter Stanley Keane.jpg
Walter Stanley Keane

(1915-10-07)October 7, 1915
DiedDecember 27, 2000(2000-12-27) (aged 85)
Known forPlagiarism
Spouse(s)Barbara Ingham
(m. 1955; div. 1965)

Joan Mervin

Walter Stanley Keane (October 7, 1915 – December 27, 2000) was an American plagiarist who became famous in the 1960s[1] as the claimed painter of a series of widely reproduced paintings depicting vulnerable subjects with enormous eyes.[2] The paintings are now accepted as having been painted by his wife Margaret Keane. When she declared her side of the story, Walter Keane retaliated with a USA Today article that again claimed he had done the work.

In 1986, Margaret Keane sued Walter and USA Today. In the subsequent slander suit, the judge demanded that the litigants paint a painting in the courtroom, but Walter declined, citing a sore shoulder. Margaret then produced a painting for the jurors in 53 minutes. The jury awarded her damages of $4 million.[3]


Keane was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, on October 7, 1915, one of 10 children from his father's second marriage. His mother, Alma Christina (Johnson) Keane, was from Denmark, and his father, William Robert Keane, was of Irish descent.[4] Keane grew up near the center of Lincoln and made money by selling shoes. In the early 1930s, he moved to Los Angeles, California, where he attended Los Angeles City College.[5] He moved to Berkeley, California, in the 1940s with his wife, Barbara (née Ingham), and went into real estate; both were real estate brokers.

Their first child, a son, died shortly after birth in the hospital. In 1947, they had a healthy baby girl, Susan Hale Keane.

In July 1948, Walter and Barbara bought the stately John J. Cairns House at 2729 Elmwood Avenue,[6] designed by Berkeley architect Walter H. Ratcliff Jr.[7][8] In 1948, the Keanes traveled to Europe, living in Heidelberg and later Paris. When they returned to their home in Berkeley, they began an educational toy business called "Susie Keane's Puppeteens", teaching children to speak French through the use of handmade puppets, phonograph records and a book. The "ballroom" of their large home became an assembly line of hand-painted wooden puppets, with various intricately made costumes. The puppets were sold in high-end stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue.[9][10]

Barbara Keane later became head of her own department in dress design at the University of California, Berkeley. Walter Keane subsequently closed both his real estate firm and the toy company in order to work full-time on his painting. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1952.

At a fairground in 1953, Walter met an artist making charcoal sketches, Margaret (Doris Hawkins) Ulbrich. They married in 1955[11] and separated on November 1, 1964. During their marriage, and for a time afterward, Walter sold his wife's highly stylized "big eyes" paintings as his own, making millions of dollars over the years.[11][12]

Walter married his third wife, Joan Mervin, after his divorce from Margaret in 1965. They had two children in the early 1970s, while living in London. This marriage also ended in divorce.

Keane was 85 when he died on December 27, 2000, in Encinitas, California.[13]


Keane first displayed Margaret's paintings as his own work in 1957, at an outdoor art show being held in Washington Square in Manhattan.[14] The paintings swiftly developed a following. In 1961, The Prescolite Manufacturing Corporation bought “Our Children” and presented it to the United Nations Children's Fund; it is in the United Nations permanent collection of art.[15] In 1965, Keane was named “one of the most controversial and most successful painters at work today.” Artworks credited to him were owned by many celebrities and hanging in a number of permanent collections.[16][17]

Keane was interviewed by LIFE magazine in 1965. He claimed his inspiration for the big-eyed children came when he was in Europe as an art student: "My psyche was scarred in my art student days in Europe, just after World War II, by an ineradicable memory of war-wracked innocents. In their eyes lurk all of mankind's questions and answers. If mankind would look deep into the soul of the very young, he wouldn't need a road map. I wanted other people to know about those eyes, too. I want my paintings to clobber you in the heart and make you yell, 'DO SOMETHING!'".[2] In the same interview, he declared that "Nobody could paint eyes like El Greco, and nobody can paint eyes like Walter Keane".[2]

In 1970, Margaret Keane announced on a radio broadcast that she was the real creator of the paintings. The Keanes continued to dispute the origin of the paintings, and after Walter suggested that the only reason Margaret claimed she was the painter was because she believed he was dead, she sued him in federal court for slander. At the hearing, the judge ordered both Margaret and Walter to create a big-eyed child painting in the courtroom. Walter declined to paint before the court, citing a sore shoulder, whereas Margaret completed her painting in 53 minutes. After three weeks of trial, a jury awarded Margaret $4 million in damages.[18] A federal appeals court upheld the verdict of defamation in 1990 but overturned the $4 million damage award.[19]

Film depiction[edit]

Tim Burton directed and produced the 2014 biographical film Big Eyes based on the life of Margaret Keane. It was released in theaters in December 2014, with Christoph Waltz playing Walter Keane and Amy Adams playing Margaret. Amy Adams won a Golden Globe Award for her performance.[20][21]


  1. ^ Joan Woods (1960). "Painting Keanes Are on the March". Archived from the original on October 6, 2014.
  2. ^ a b c Howard, Jane (August 27, 1965). "The Man Who Paints Those Big Eyes: The Phenomenal Success of Walter Keane". Life Magazine. Vol. 59, No. 9 - pp. 39, 45, 48. Retrieved December 11, 2010.
  3. ^ Brooks, Katherine (September 23, 2014). "Everything You Need To Know About Margaret & Walter Keane, Tim Burton's Latest Obsession". Retrieved September 30, 2014.
  4. ^[bare URL]
  5. ^ "Eyes Have a Nay". St. Petersburg Times. October 21, 1970. Retrieved December 9, 2010.
  6. ^ Ormsby Donogh Real Estate Files, Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.
  7. ^ Berkeley Building Permit #483, March 8, 1910.
  8. ^ Bruce, Anthony. Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr., Architect: His Berkeley Work. Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, 2006, p.8.
  9. ^ Keane, Susan Hale (December 20, 2014). "Press Release: Official Statement by Susan Hale Keane, Daughter of Walter Stanley Keane". IMDb. Archived from the original on April 24, 2017. Retrieved January 7, 2021.
  10. ^ "The True Story of the 'Keane Eyes'".
  11. ^ a b "Margaret Keane Gets Divorce". The Free Lance–Star. Fredericksburg, Virginia. March 19, 1965. p. 4. Retrieved December 12, 2010.
  12. ^ "Artist Awarded Legal Separation". Reading Eagle. May 17, 1965. p. 2. Retrieved December 12, 2010.
  13. ^ Levy, Dan (January 4, 2001). "Keane, Artist Associated With Big-Eyed Portraits". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved December 11, 2010.
  14. ^ Wilcock, John (June 19, 1957). "Walter Keane, Artist: Crosses the Continent for the Show in the Square". The Village Voice. Retrieved December 11, 2010.
  15. ^ Margaret Keane; Walter Stanley Keane; Richard Nolan (1962). Margaret and Walter Keane. Tomorrow's masters series. Prescolite. p. 12.
  16. ^ Bishop, Katherine (March 4, 1992). "Paintings Of Small Kids With Big Eyes Are Back". The Spokesman-Review. Retrieved December 12, 2010.
  17. ^ Paradise of the Pacific, Volumes 77-78. 1965.
  18. ^ Kunen, James S. (June 23, 1986). "Margaret Keane's Artful Case Proves That She — and Not Her Ex-Husband — made Waifs". Retrieved September 30, 2014.
  19. ^ "Keane left isles for California in '91". Honolulu Star Bulletin. August 6, 1997.
  20. ^ Fleming, Mike, Jr. (April 2, 2013). "Tim Burton To Direct 'Big Eyes'; The Weinstein Company Putting Finishing Brush Strokes On Deal For Painting Saga". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved April 3, 2013.
  21. ^ Chitwood, Adam (April 2, 2013). "Tim Burton to Next Direct Biopic BIG EYES; Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams Will Star". Collider. Retrieved April 3, 2013.

Further reading[edit]