The True Story Behind Big Eyes

6 minute read

For years, Walter Keane was known as one of the most commercially successful artists of the 1960s. His paintings of waif-thin girls with eyes four times their normal size were dubbed “the most popular art now being produced in the free world” in a 1965 LIFE story. But Walter Keane, it turns out, couldn’t even paint. It was his wife, Margaret, who was really creating all the “Big Eye” paintings and kept Walter’s secret after he threatened to have her killed.

TIME looked at articles from the 1960s and 1970s—including a profile in LIFE Magazine and critiques of the big eye paintings in the New York Times—and modern-day interviews with Margaret Keane to find out how closely the new Tim Burton film Big Eyes follows Keane’s rise in the art world and eventual exposure as a fraud.

Warning: Spoilers for Big Eyes follow

Walter Keane claimed to paint the Big Eyes until his death

Ruling: Fact

Walter (played by Christoph Waltz in the movie) claimed he was inspired by the starving, orphaned children he saw in his supposed travels after World War II. He told LIFE Magazine, “Nobody could paint eyes like El Greco and nobody can paint eyes like Walter Keane.”

Walter did acknowledge that Margaret (Amy Adams), too, was a painter, but the paintings credited to her had slightly smaller almond-shaped eyes with a different style. The profile goes on to say: “Margaret, it is true, paints eyes a little like those for which her husband is famous. But hers are not so big and belong as unvaryingly to nubile girls as his belong to what appear to be war waifs.” (Later in the article, the reporter cites critics who say Margaret’s style is superior to Walter’s—even though we now know that all the paintings were by Margaret.)

Walter used a brawl with a night club owner to promote the paintings

Ruling: Mostly Fact

The paintings first became popular after hanging in Enrico Banducci’s hungry i nightclub on Jackson Street in San Francisco. Margaret, who was more shy than Walter, would paint at home while he sold her works in the club. It wasn’t until over a year after he began this practice that Margaret visited the hungry i one night and discovered that Walter was taking credit for her work.

Walter and Banducci did indeed fight: Banducci punched Keane for “using obscenity in the presence of a lady,” according to the Chronicle, and Keane was arrested for drunkenness. The two sued each other in 1958, though it is unclear whether they reached an implicit agreement to do so for publicity as the movie suggests.

Walter never tried to paint the big eyes himself

Ruling: Fiction

In the film, neither the audience nor Margaret ever see Walter put paintbrush to canvas in the film (except to sign his name on others’ work). It is true that Walter could not paint—but not for lack of effort. After Margaret first confronted him about peddling the big eye paintings as his own, he said that it would be confusing to correct his lie and that people would sue him. He asked Margaret to teach him how to paint the big eyes, but he was unable to mimic her style. It was only later that Margaret discovered he had also stolen the Parisian street scenes that he had been peddling as his own when the two met at an art fair.

Nobody visited the Keane’s mansion

Ruling: Fiction

In the film, next to nobody is allowed in the Keane house for fear that they will discover Margaret’s studio and therefore the Keane secret. Though it is true that nobody—including Margaret’s daughter and their staff—was allowed in Margaret’s studio, Walter Keane would invite socialites and celebrities to their home.

“Everybody was screwing everybody,” he writes in his memoir. “Sometimes I’d be going to bed and there’d be three girls in the bed.” The Beach Boys were among the many visitors to the Keane pool, though Margaret rarely met these celebs since she was painting 16 hours per day. Even when Walter left the house, he would call Margaret every hour to ensure that she hadn’t left.

MORE: Listen to Two Lana Del Rey ‘Big Eyes’ Tracks

Walter threatened to have Margaret killed

Ruling: Fact

According to Margaret, Walter not only had many affairs but was abusive to her. “I was in jail,” she said in an interview with the Guardian this year. “He wouldn’t allow me to have any friends. If I tried to slip away from him, he’d follow me. We had a chihuahua and because I loved that little dog so much, he kicked it, and so finally I had to give the dog away. He was very jealous and domineering. And all along he said: ‘If you ever tell anyone I’m going to have you knocked off.’ I knew he knew a lot of mafia people.”

Walter attacked a New York Times critic

Ruling: Fiction

New York Times critic John Canaday did indeed pan the 1964 World’s Fair painting “Tomorrow Forever.” He wrote that Keane “grinds out formula pictures of wide-eyed children with such appalling sentimentality that his product has become synonymous among critics with the very definition of tasteless hack work.” The World’s Fair took down the painting after the review came out.

However, there are no reports of Walter trying to attack Canaday with a fork as he did in the movie.

Margaret Keane told the truth after becoming a Jehovah’s Witness

Ruling: Mostly Fiction

The film changes the timeline of the Keanes’ court battle. Margaret revealed to a UPI reporter that she was the real artist behind the big eyes in October of 1970 (6 years after they had separated). She even challenged him to a paint-off in San Francisco’s Union Square in Nov. 1970, according to LIFE, but Walter never showed. He did respond by saying she was a “boozing, sex-starved psychopath.” It was only then that Margaret moved to Hawaii and became a Jehovah’s witness. In an interview with SFGate, Margaret credits her third husband, sportswriter Dan McGuire, with helping her decide to tell the truth. “he had a lot to do with helping me see I didn’t have to lie anymore.”

The judge asked the Keanes to each paint a child with big eyes in the courtroom

Ruling: Fact

A Hawaiian judge really did ask Margaret and Walter to each paint a big eyes picture in the courtroom in front of a crowd to determine who was telling the truth. Margaret completed hers within 53 minutes while Walter pleaded a sore shoulder and didn’t paint anything.

Sadly, though Margaret won $4 million in the suit, she didn’t see a cent. Walter had already spent the couple’s entire fortune.

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