Visitors to Fisherman’s Wharf often pass by Keane Eyes Gallery on Larkin Street, the premier gallery exhibiting the eye-catching work of local painter Margaret Keane. But not everyone knows the artist behind the signature painting style depicting wide-eyed children and animals.
Filmgoers will get to know Keane this holiday season, when director Tim Burton (a enthusiastic collector of Keane’s work) brings the story of Keane’s big-eyed waif paintings to the big screen. His latest film, the appropriately named “Big Eyes,” opens Christmas Day and stars a blond-bobbed Amy Adams as a young Margaret Keane opposite Christoph Waltz, who plays Margaret’s husband, Walter. The Keanes first exhibited Walter’s paintings in the late 1950s before attracting widespread attention and rising to prominence in the 1960s.
Keane’s art was popular but polarizing, attracting a massive fan base but also seen to highbrow collectors and curators as maudlin kitsch peddled by Walter in every tacky way possible, from postcards to parasols. Still, Andy Warhol was a fan. The doe-eyed art made a cameo in Woody Allen’s 1973 hit “Sleeper.” According to the New York Times, Walter Keane could charge up to $50,000 for a single painting.
Problem was, Walter wasn’t the artist. According to Margaret, Walter couldn’t paint a sunset. And the more fraught their marriage became, the more the tragic, tearful saucer eyes in her paintings tracked Margaret’s silent struggle, caught in a doomed marriage with a man claiming credit for her work.
Eventually, Margaret fled to Hawaii, and the couple separated in 1965. In 1970, when Margaret went public with the truth that she was the artist behind the acclaimed art, the former spouses went to war. Margaret challenged Walter to a paint-off in a federal courtroom, where she replicated her distinctive style with ease. Walter refused to paint, citing a shoulder injury. You might call it a portrait of the artist as a fraud.
Set against the backdrop of mid-century North Beach, “Big Eyes” artfully features many prominent San Francisco landmarks including Saints Peter and Paul Church and of course, the Golden Gate Bridge. Since returning to the Bay Area from Hawaii, Margaret Keane, now 87, continues to paint in her home in Sonoma County. The film has caused the price of her paintings to spike, a happy ending if there ever was one.
Keane Eyes Gallery, 3040 Larkin St., San Francisco, 415.922.9309