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How hugely-popular Keane's Kids paintings descended into courtroom drama over who painted them!

In 1986, a judge in Honolulu came up with a solution and ordered an extraordinary 'paint-off' between the warring ex-spouses to solve the mystery
Margaret Keane was the artist behind the famous Keane's Kids paintings (Margaret Keane/Facebook)
Margaret Keane was the artist behind the famous Keane's Kids paintings (Margaret Keane/Facebook)

Walter Keane climbed the ladder of fortune with every applause he garnered from art critics for his paintings of waifs with big tearful eyes. Years later, the court revealed a shocking truth about him and told the world that the creations were not his, but his wife Margaret Keane's, who created every masterpiece in silence while her husband enjoyed the applause.

Margaret, who took her last breaths in California at the age of 94, was unwavering that she is the mind and artist responsible not just for Walter’s 'Keane's Kids’ but many masterworks of her husband. Whether it was the painted photographs of Hollywood celebrities or The Strays, it was Margaret’s brush strokes that created some of the phenomenal artworks of history.


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By the early 1960s, Walter became a reputed name in the world of art and it was impossible to walk into a Woolworths without seeing racks of Keane prints and postcards selling in a million. His work was on display at the headquarters of the United Nations building in New York, at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre, and in many private collections, including that of actress Joan Crawford.

Signed simply Keane and reproduced on everything from prints and postcards to plates and mugs, their artwork changed the destiny of the Keane couple. But even this success can’t bring out the truth about which of them was really 'Keane'? Until, a judge during the trial held in the Hawaiian capital Honolulu in 1986, came up with a solution and ordered an extraordinary "paint-off" between the warring ex-spouses to solve the mystery.

During the paint-off, the ex-spouses were asked to produce an art piece in their signature style while the court kept an eye on them. Beginning with two huge dark pools for eyes and framing the pixie-like face with wispy brown hair, she painted a portrait of a little boy and showed she alone, was responsible for the many other dreamy-eyed portraits. To make her claim rock solid, she brought along some paintings that she created during her childhood.

Margaret revealed her obsession with eyes began when she failed an ear operation at the age of 10. Her loss of hearing left her with the option of looking deep into people’s eyes to capture the emotion of their hearts. The jury was shown a picture of a girl she had painted when she was 11. After her marriage to her first husband Frank, her range of subjects expanded to include adults and animals but always included the spooky images of children with eyes.

Margaret and Frank had a daughter named Jane, but they divorced due to their difference and she moved on to marry Walter in 1955. Being happy with her marriage life, Margaret created many art pieces for Walter and also had a daughter named Susie with him.

"It suited me fine. I was timid," she told Life magazine. But the shock came to her heart when she got to know that the paintings are being sold in the market by the name of her husband. To convince Margaret, Walter told her that buyers were willing to pay more if they thought the works were painted by a man. "He threatened to kill our two daughters and me if we told anyone," she revealed. By now, Margaret realized enough is enough and the truth needs to come out. Margaret claimed that Walter was a tyrannical overseer, imprisoning her in a basement studio for 16 hours a day as she worked on up to seven paintings at a time.

Soon after, Margaret decided to leave Walter and give him a divorce. But even after the divorce, she was still stuck in the fraud as she thought it was too late to say it wasn’t him as the paintings had become a fixture in thousands of American suburban homes.

After separating from Walter, Margaret move to Hawaii and married sports journalist Dan McGuire in 1970. Her relationship with McGuire gave her the confidence to tell a newspaper reporter that it was she who had painted every single one of Keane's Kids.

In 1984, Walter went too far, suggesting to the newspaper USA Today that Margaret was continuing to claim credit for his work because she believed him to be dead and was after his legacy. She sued him for defamation, leading to a court case in Honolulu.

During the 1986 trial, the showdown between the ex-spouses went too sober as Walter claimed he has a shoulder injury and can’t move the brush on the canvas, while Margaret on the other hand made her claim rock solid and painted her artwork in just 53 minutes.

In the jury's mind, there was no doubt as to who was Keane. She was awarded $4M (£2.7M) as compensation for the emotional distress and damaged reputation she had suffered. Walter declared bankruptcy shortly after the verdict so no compensation was paid. He continued to insist that he had painted all of the pictures right up until he died in 2000.

"I feel that justice has triumphed," she said at the time of the court case. "My part in the deception had lasted for 12 years and is one I will always regret." She continued to paint almost until the end of her life and there's still a market for her work today. Alongside T-shirts featuring the trademark Keane's Kids, her website sells originals and copies of her works.