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 Walter Keane  (1915 - 2000)

About: Walter Keane
 

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Lived/Active: California/Nebraska      Known for: 'wide-eyed' naif child portrait and figure painting

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Walter Keane
An example of work by Walter Keane
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following is the obituary of the artist from the San Francisco Chronicle.

"Keane, Artist Associated With Big-Eyed Portraits"
Dan Levy
Published 4:00 am, Thursday, January 4, 2001

Walter Keane, a flamboyant 1950s and '60s North Beach artist best known for portraits of sad, doe-eyed children that became a worldwide sensation, died Dec. 27 at an Encinitas hospital. He was 85.

Mr. Keane had been suffering from lung and kidney disease, said Joan Keane, an ex-wife.

The creative authorship of the famous "Keane" pictures, which started out depicting big-eyed waifs and runaways but later graduated to big-eyed dogs, giraffes, geishas and grown adults, was the subject of a decades-long controversy. Both Mr. Keane and his second wife, Margaret Keane, also a San Francisco painter, claimed to be the creator.

The stakes were high: millions of dollars in copyright fees. By the mid- 1960s, Keane pictures were among the best-loved art in the world, despite being derided by many critics as kitsch.

The dispute came to a climax in a 1986 lawsuit, when a federal judge in Honolulu ordered both Walter and Margaret Keane to paint pictures for the jury.

Margaret produced a likeness of a big-eyed child in 54 minutes. Mr. Keane declined to paint, saying he had a sore shoulder.

There was also a scheduled Union Square "paint-off" in 1970, covered in Life magazine, where Margaret again produced a painting but Walter failed to attend.

Herb Caen, who knew Mr. Keane from his North Beach days, concluded in a 1991 column that Margaret Keane was the real painter.

Until the end, though, Mr. Keane insisted he was the creator of the big- eyed children. In 1991, he told The Chronicle, "I painted the waifs of the world."

Mr. Keane was born Oct. 7, 1915, in Lincoln, Neb. He was one of 10 children from his father's second marriage and grew up in a white clapboard house near the center of the city. As a child, he made money by selling shoes.

Friends said in later life he proved to be a great promoter and salesman.

He moved to Los Angeles in the early '30s and attended Los Angeles City College. He also spent time in Paris as a young man and told friends later in life that he had studied art there.

The inspiration for the big eyes, he said, came from seeing despairing street children in war-torn Berlin after World War II.

In San Francisco during the postwar Bohemian era, Mr. Keane cut a dashing figure in North Beach. His sometimes raucous escapades were noted in newspaper columns, including an altercation with Hungry I club owner Enrico Banducci that ended in court with Mr. Keane's acquittal on charges of disorderly conduct. Witnesses in that case testified that he had thrown a woman across the room, thrown a telephone book at Banducci and crawled on the floor with a hat fashioned from a napkin.

"He had a very colorful life," said Joan Keane.

Mr. Keane is survived by his ex-wives, Barbara Mearns of Carmel, Margaret Keane of Sebastopol, and Joan Keane of Vancouver, British Columbia; daughter Susan Hale Keane of Washington state, son Sacha Michel Keane of Vancouver, and daughter Chantal Keane Brasset of Victoria, British Columbia; and three grandchildren.

There will be a private family service Jan. 20 in Vancouver.


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Lincoln, Nebraska, Walter Keane became a highly-popular post World War II who was credited as a figure painter of wide-eyed "lost" children, waif-like and sympathy provoking. These images were reproduced throughout the world with originals in many collections including the United Nations, the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Madrid, Spain, and the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, Japan.

At the age of fifteen, he moved to Los Angeles to live with an uncle, and as a young adult, seemed headed towards a business career, following in the footsteps of his father. However, he began painting on his own, and in 1938, abandoned the business idea to attend college in Berkeley from where he graduated three years later.

He became so torn emotionally between the pressure of his father to be practical and go into business and his own inner drive to be an artist that he developed ulcers. But late in 1943, he made the final decision to become an artist and painted full time for a year in Berkeley and then enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris where he lived a raucous Bohemian-style life.

In Paris, according to the 'official' version of the story, he painted street scenes and figures including nudes, and from 1946 to 1947, he went to Berlin where he began his signature theme of "Lost Children." These paintings were inspired by his shock at seeing the thousands of war-orphaned, poverty-stricken children. Wanting to capture the realism of these people, he abandoned the Abstract Expressionism he had flirted with and focused on a style that more closely resembled Realism with elements of Modernism.

He stayed in Europe until 1949 and then returned to Berkeley where he worked from his Berlin drawings and did a lot of painting in Sausalito, living at North Beach. He married his wife, Margaret, also an artist, and they lived in Oakland, and became public personalities because his work was collected by so many movie stars.

By 1956, he and Margaret opened a gallery at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu, and again his work got much attention. Shortly after, the couple returned to San Francisco where they had a gallery at 494 Broadway for two years and then opened a gallery in New York City. Again he had many collectors but also received criticism for being repetitious with every canvas having a "lost" child.

In 1965, Walter and Margaret Keane divorced, and a judge ruled against him when he made claims that certain paintings of waif-like children signed Keane were by him. When the judge asked Margaret and Walter to each produce a painting in that style and subject matter, he declined and she readily performed. The conclusion, according to "Artnews" November, 2000 is that some of the paintings attributed to him are in fact by his former wife.

Source:
Editor, 'Art Talk', Artnews, November 2000

Addendum:
Maggie Willis wrote the following to AskART: Margaret Keane "was already doing big eyes prior to her marriage.  I have one of her big eyes paintings of myself painted in 1954."


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