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Margaret Keane: the Napan behind the 'Big Eyes' paintings

Margaret Keane: the Napan behind the 'Big Eyes' paintings

While she lives a modest life in Napa, Margaret Keane, 91, is actually a world-renowned artist known for the iconic “big eyes” paintings.

The home she shares with her daughter Jane and her son-in-law Don Swigert is filled with hundreds of her paintings, but also work by Jane, a talented artist in her own right.

Born in 1927 in Nashville, Keane first became nationally known for her paintings of “big-eyed” children in the 1950s.

At the time, Keane’s work drew few accolades from art critics. However, her work found mass market appeal, leading to great success for the artist, who now lives in Napa.

Andy Warhol once said, “I think what Keane has done is terrific! If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”

According to the book “Big Eyes, The Film, The Art,” a botched ear operation from many years ago left Keane unable to hear in one ear. To compensate, she began to focus on people’s eyes to help understand them.

“I’ve always been interested in eyes because I’m interested in the inner person,” she said.

Keane spoke of a sense of spiritual isolation and loneliness she felt was reflected through the faces she painted.

Today, some of that seems to have been alleviated. Many of her current faces include children with happy eyes, she noted.

Keane was married three times and has outlived all three husbands.

Her second husband, Walter Keane, encouraged her painting but later began selling Keane’s artwork as his own. Years later, she had to sue Keane to prove she was the true creator of the Big Eyes paintings. The two even had a “paint-off” inside the courtroom itself. Margaret Keane had no problem creating a new Big Eyes painting. Her husband refused to paint, citing a shoulder injury.

In 2014 Tim Burton directed a feature film about Keane and her second husband. Called “Big Eyes,” the biopic starred Amy Adams as Margaret Keane and Christoph Waltz as Walter Keane.

The movie was “amazing,” said Jane Swigert. “The writers did such a good job.”

Margaret Keane still gets letters and emails from fans and collectors worldwide. The correspondence picked up after the film was released.

“I had no idea of what an impact the paintings have had on people,” she said.

Today, Keane continues to paint almost daily at her home in west Napa.

Keane describes herself as a fast and prolific painter. When asked how many works she’s painted in her lifetime, she had no idea. “I couldn’t ever begin to count them.” Her work continues to be sold today by her longtime agent, Robert Brown, in the Keane Eyes gallery in San Francisco.

Unfortunately, Brown – who lives in Santa Rosa – lost his home in the October wildfires. About 25 of Keane’s paintings were inside the house — “my very best ones,” she said.

But, “I try not to be too attached,” Keane said. “They’re just paintings. I was just glad Robert (and his family) were OK.”

Recently, an obituary writer from the New York Times called to update Keane’s pre-written obituary, a common practice for a large newspaper.

Keane said the call surprised her.

“I said, ‘I’m not planning on dying. I’m going to live forever.’”

Jordanian artist and architect Saleh Mansour paints on face mask to encourage people to wear protective gear amid the spread of coronavirus cases in Jordan.

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Business Editor

Jennifer Huffman is the business editor and a general assignment reporter for the Napa Valley Register. I cover a wide variety of topics for the newspaper. I've been with the Register since 2005.

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