Walter Keane Biography


Birthday: October 7, 1915 (Libra)

Born In: Lincoln, Nebraska, United States

Walter Keane was an American real-estate entrepreneur who later became known for plagiarism. He was considered a noted painter of a series of phenomenally successful and popular big-eyed paintings, until the creations were claimed by his ex-wife, American artist Margaret Keane, and later established by court as her creations. The initial career of Walter saw him selling shoes and working as a real-estate broker. He eventually started an educational toy business named ‘Susie Keane's Puppeteens’ with his first wife. The two used handmade puppets, among other things, to teach children French. They made hand-painted wide-eyed wooden puppets and sold them in high-end stores. Walter later gave up this job to devote his entire time to painting. After his first marriage ended, he married Margaret (Doris Hawkins) Ulbrich. Reportedly, over the years, Walter developed a fan following and made millions of dollars selling Margaret’s wide-eyed paintings as his own. Following their divorce in the 1960s, Margaret claimed that she was the creator of the paintings. In retaliation, Walter claimed in a ‘USA Today’ article that he had done the work. Margaret then sued Walter and ‘USA Today.’ A court "paint-off" in Hawaii later established the fact that Margaret was the real artist of those paintings.
Quick Facts

Also Known As: Walter Stanley Keane

Died At Age: 85


Spouse/Ex-: Joan Mervin, Barbara Ingham (m. 1941–1952), Margaret Keane (m. 1955–1965)

father: William Robert Keane

mother: Alma Christina Keane

children: Chantal Keane Brasset, Sacha Michel Keane, Susan Hale Keane

Born Country: United States

Artists Fraudsters

Died on: December 27, 2000

place of death: Encinitas, California, United States

More Facts

education: Los Angeles City College

Childhood & Early Life
Walter Stanley Keane was born on October 7, 1915, in Lincoln, Nebraska, US, to William Robert Keane and his second wife, Alma Christina (Johnson) Keane. He was one of their 10 children. His father was of Irish descent, while his mother was from Denmark.
Walter was raised near the center of Lincoln. His initial earnings came from selling shoes. He relocated to Los Angeles, California, in the early 1930s and studied at the ‘Los Angeles City College’ there.
He married Barbara Ingham. In the 1940s, the couple shifted to Berkeley, California, where they started working as real-estate brokers. The couple lost their first child, a son, just after his birth in hospital. Their daughter, Susan Hale Keane, was born in 1947. The following year, in July, the couple purchased the stately ‘John J. Cairns House’ located at 2729 Elmwood Avenue. Berkeley architect Walter H. Ratcliff Jr. had designed the house.
Walter and his family traveled to Europe in 1948 and lived in Heidelberg and Paris before returning to their Berkley home. After returning, they started an educational toy business called ‘Susie Keane's Puppeteens’ and taught children to speak French using handmade puppets, books, and phonograph records. They piled up hand-painted wide-eyed wooden puppets in the ballroom of their Berkley home and sold them in high-end stores such as ‘Saks Fifth Avenue.’
Walter later closed his real-estate firm as well as his toy company to fully concentrate on his painting career. The couple divorced in 1952.
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Life, Dispute, & Court Case with Margaret Keane
Walter met Margaret (Doris Hawkins) Ulbrich for the first time at a fairground in 1953, where she was making charcoal sketches. The two married in 1955 in Honolulu.
In 1957, Walter began showcasing paintings of Margaret as his own creations. The paintings were displayed on a wall of the ‘Bank of America’ in Sausalito in February that year. According to Walter, the nine paintings he took to New Orleans were sold during Mardi Gras. He displayed the artwork at the ‘Washington Square Outdoor Art Show’ in New York City in summer that year. He also showcased them at the ‘Sheraton Hotel’ in Chicago and in a small East Side gallery in August the same year.
Over the period of his marriage with Margaret and also for sometime after their divorce, Walter sold her paintings of subjects with big eyes as his own work and made millions of dollars. The main venue for his sales was the comedy club ‘hungry i’ located in San Francisco. Gradually, the paintings gained attention and fan following. Many of them were bought by celebrities, while many others became part of permanent collections. One of them, titled ‘Our Children,’ was bought by the ‘Prescolite Manufacturing Corporation’ in 1961 and presented to the ‘United Nations Children's Fund’ (UNICEF). It presently finds a place in the permanent art collection of the ‘United Nations.’
While the popularity of the artwork eventually earned Walter widespread recognition, the actual painter, Margaret, was painting non-stop for 16 hours a day. Walter was tagged as "one of the most controversial and most successful painters at work today" in 1965. The same year, he gave an interview to ‘LIFE’ magazine, where he claimed that the motivation for depicting vulnerable subjects with enormous eyes in his paintings came from his art-student days in Europe. He mentioned that the lasting memory of war-affected innocent children following the Second World War had left a mark in his psyche. He asserted in the same interview that he was the best painter of eyes after yesteryear Greek artist El Greco.
Meanwhile, Walter and Margaret separated on November 1, 1964. They divorced in 1965. Margaret made an announcement on a radio broadcast in 1970, claiming that she was the actual creator of the paintings that were till such time considered creations of Walter.
According to Margaret, initially, she had no knowledge that Walter was exhibiting and selling the paintings as his own work. After becoming aware of his deception, she remained silent, as she was afraid of Walter and his threats. After Margaret’s disclosure about the paintings, Bill Flang, a reporter from the ‘San Francisco Examiner,’ organized a “paint-out” between the two in Union Square, San Francisco. Although Margaret showed up at the event that was attended by the media, Walter skipped it.
Walter, on the other hand, claimed again, this time through a ‘USA Today’ article, that he was the real artist of the paintings. He said that Margaret was claiming credit for the paintings because she thought he was dead. Margaret then sued Walter and ‘USA Today’ in a federal court in 1986. During the trial, Margaret and Walter were ordered by the judge to create a big-eyed painting in front of the court, so as to help the court ascertain who was telling the truth. While Margaret followed the order and finished her painting in 53 minutes, Walter refused to paint, saying that he was suffering from a sore shoulder.
The trial continued for 3 weeks, following which Margaret was awarded US$4 million in damages by the jury. Later, in 1990, the verdict of the defamation was upheld by a federal appeals court. However, the damage award of US$4 million was overturned.
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Later Life
Following his divorce from Margaret, Walter married Joan Mervin. During their stay in London, in the early 1970s, the couple had two children. Walter’s third marriage also culminated in a divorce.
He suffered from lung and kidney disease and died on December 27, 2000 in Encinitas, California. He was 85 years old at the time of his death.
Media Representation
The December 2014-released critically and commercially successful American biographical drama film ‘Big Eyes,’ directed by Tim Burton, starred Christoph Waltz as Walter and Amy Adams as Margaret. The film was based on Margaret’s life.
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