​"Big Eyes" and the eye-opening story of Margaret Keane


Her paintings of tots with eyes as big as saucers were world-famous, but Margaret Keane's husband, Walter, took all the credit.

CBS News

"Big eyes" were a big hit in the popular art world several decades ago. Now, all eyes are on a new movie that tells the tale of the deception behind them. With Lee Cowan we take a look:

For art enthusiasts of a certain age, it is a familiar gaze: a tearful tot with eyes as big as saucers, known as a "Keane."

They were everywhere in the 1960s, reproduced on postcards, lithographs, china plates, you name it. Art to some, kitsch to others.

Diane Keaton even nodded to their popularity in Woody Allen's film, "Sleeper": "Oh, it's Keane! It's pure Keane!"

"Keane" was Walter Keane. Those big-eyed waifs made him a celebrity, and a favorite on the talk show circuit.

From "The Merv Griffin Show" in 1966:

Merv Griffin: "Why are your children so sad-eyed and lost-looking?"
Walter Keane: "I started painting children like this in Berlin after the war."

But Walter Keane didn't paint any of those children. His wife, Margaret Keane, did, while Walter pretended to -- and took almost all of the credit.

"I was a very abused wife," Margaret Keane told Cowan. "Psychologically abused, tremendously. I kept getting deeper and deeper in this hole, and I didn't know how to get out."

It all began shortly after Margaret met Walter in San Francisco in 1954. She had painted most of her life. Walter took it up late, and (she says) was never really very good.

"Did you ever see him paint?" Cowan asked.

"Oh, I saw him try!" she laughed.

Artist Margaret Keane with correspondent Lee Cowan at the Keane Eyes Gallery in San Francisco. CBS News

He displayed his street scenes alongside Margaret's work, but it was her big-eyed children that got all the reaction. She signed them "Keane" -- but Walter sold them as his own. When Margaret found out, he convinced her they would sell better if people thought the artist was a man.

Life Magazine, Aug. 27, 1965. CBS News

"The whole thing snow-balled so fast, almost overnight," said Margaret. She told Cowan that the two argued and fought over the issue for about a year, "until finally I just gave in."

Though critics derided the work, the public loved those big eyes, and the money started rolling in. For more than a decade, Walter's fame grew. He even appeared in Life Magazine as "The Man Who Paints the Big Eyes." Margaret remained silent -- and, she admits, complicit.

"I was a lot to blame," she said. "If I hadn't allowed it, it wouldn't have happened."

Walter Keane died 14 years ago, but Margaret, now 87, still paints every day. "I was always drawing eyes, even as a child. Eyes fascinated me."

On the walls of the Keane Eyes Gallery in San Francisco hang many of the big eyes that her husband took credit for.

Now, the tale of the secret that she kept for so many years is about to be told again, only this time on a different canvas. "Big Eyes," directed by Tim Burton, stars Amy Adams as Margaret, and Christoph Waltz as Walter.