Relative of discredited ‘Big Eyes’ artist makes a Keane defense
In the new Tim Burton film “Big Eyes,” Amy Adams stars as artist Margaret Keane, whose husband, Walter, bullies her into allowing him to take credit for her paintings — artworks of maudlin moppets with teary, platter-sized eyes that made Keane a household name and earned the couple a fortune in the late 1950s and ‘60s.
But now that the film is out and the last of Walter Keane’s 10 siblings died last year, one family member has come forward to dispute the notions that Walter couldn’t paint and that Margaret conceived the big-eyed motif.
Billy Keane, nephew of Walter (played as a charismatic con artist by Christoph Waltz), said his mother, Lillian, was married to Walter’s brother, Howard. His mother told Billy many times that she had seen Walter do the very thing that Burton’s film purports he couldn’t: paint.
While Margaret’s story is being told in film, nobody is left to defend Walter, Billy Keane said.
“My mom passed away about seven months ago,” he said. “She saw Walter paint, and she was just so hurt when Margaret started saying she painted the pictures in the ‘80s.”
Margaret won a lawsuit against Walter years after their divorce when a court-ordered paint-off determined she was the artist of the work. During the paint-off, Margaret produced a picture while Walter claimed a shoulder injury prevented him from lifting his brush. Walter died, discredited and alone, in Encinitas in 2000.
In an interview with The Times, Billy said he asked his uncle why he didn’t paint in court that fateful day. Walter told him, “Billy, I was so old then, and my shoulder really did hurt.”
Billy said his parents owned a shop in Inglewood that framed the Keane paintings and shipped them off all over the world. They put together books for Walter at their shop that contained paintings and chalk drawings of big-eyed waifs that Walter made in the 1940s, before he ever met Margaret, Billy said.
“That’s why it’s so funny to me how this movie is so one-sided,” he said, adding that nobody involved in making the film asked Walter’s family for its side of the story.
“Big Eyes” screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski responded by saying they obtained the rights to Margaret Keane’s life story because they believed her version of events.
“Walter was a brilliant salesman, but in almost 12 years, we haven’t come across one scrap of evidence to suggest that he could paint,” they wrote in a statement. “After their divorce, Walter lived another 35 years, yet he never produced another Big Eyed painting.”
They added that Margaret’s courtroom victory established her as the legal creator of the paintings.
Margaret did not respond to a request for comment on Billy’s statements.
In a book by Leah Gallo titled “Big Eyes: The Film, the Art,” singer Matthew Sweet, who is a Keane aficionado and has worked as a consultant on the film, recounted meeting Walter in the late 1990s, when he still claimed to have painted the pictures. Sweet purchased a painting from Walter dated 1985, but later on a hunch, Sweet said, he scraped off paint with his thumbnail revealing a “6" under the 8. Sweet said the painting had been made in 1965 and Walter had painted over the year.
Sweet, who has been collecting and studying Keane artwork for more than 20 years, said in an interview that when examined in person, all Keane paintings have clearly been done by the same person, even though Walter said he did the big-eyes paintings and Margaret painted other styles under her own name.
“Walter had many talents, including an incredible gift for promotion, but he wasn’t interested in those talents,” Sweet said, adding, “He had an obsessive need to be recognized as an artist.”
Billy, a country-rock musician living in Los Angeles, said none of these stories add up to the man he knew and loved. After Billy’s father died, Walter would take him and his mom to fancy dinners. He encouraged Billy to play music and follow his dreams.
“I was like, ‘Wow, I want to be this guy,’” Billy recalled.
He owns a number of Keane paintings, most left at the frame shop his parents owned. There is one with a cheerless girl holding a gloomy kitten that has his mom’s name written on the back, Billy said.
“I don’t know if he originally painted that one for my mom or not.”