Margaret Keane’s life and artwork is so extraordinary that she is the focus of the Tim Burton film Big Eyes. The rich and famous had to have an original Keane painting on their walls. Burton, the director of Big Eyes, had a Keane portrait done of his girlfriend, actress Lisa Marie. Keane paintings of most celebrities are a good likeness of them, but the one of Michael Jackson with huge tearful eyes on the pop star’s celebrity paintings are not what Keane is known for. Millions of people around the world are more familiar with Keane paintings of big-eyed children. These paintings became internationally famous, and you didn’t have to be rich to own one. Priced for the average person, there were Keane postcards and prints that could be purchased at local stores. This brilliant marketing strategy was due to Keane’s husband, Walter.
Why did the world fall in love with paintings of sad-looking, big-eyed children in the 1960s? Miss Keane stated that the appeal of the paintings was that many people, including herself, wondered why the world was so evil and searched for answers. The eyes of the children reflected this confusion and yearning for peace the artist felt.
The popularity of big-eyed paintings produced imitators and influenced the artwork in cartoons and comic books. For example, the big-eyed Powerpuff Girls had a teacher named Miss Keane, which was, of course, an acknowledgment of Margaret Keane’s paintings.
Keane painted big-eyed children of every race and color, and her paintings of African-American females are eye-catching. One painting, titled Black Lavender, features a playful, big-eyed little Black girl in a lavender sweater. The Black girl in Sunday Best is the opposite. An angelic, serious-looking Black girl sits in a wooden chair. The child’s dress is a colorful mix of bright orange and red polka dots and stripes. It’s her most elegant dress, so she’s wearing it to church. One painting of an African or African-American woman titled Afro-Keane simply looks beautiful. That the painting of the Black woman is titled Afro-Keane is amusing since, in the 1960s and beyond, young Blacks sprayed a product called Afro Sheen on their hair before combing. The Afro-Keane painting captures the dignity and beauty of its Black subject, and the deep-brown skin color is realistic-looking.
Read more from Demetrius Sherman at blackgirlsnerds.com