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Big Eyes and the Woman Behind Them

Most people find babies cute, but what is it exactly that causes this perception? In 1943, ethologist Konrad Lorenz described the “baby schema” (1) – a set of facial features commonly found in both human and animal infants said to trigger an innate response driving caregiving and affective orientation towards infants. These features include a large head, round face, and big eyes. The role of the baby schema in promoting nurturing behaviors was shown neurophysiologically using neuroimaging (2).

To my mind, there are few filmmakers that use the baby schema quite like Tim Burton; his animated characters often have distinctly large eyes that dominate the rest of their diminutive features. But Burton and the baby schema probably collide most heavily in the film Big Eyes, which tells the story of the late Margaret Keane (3) – a painter famous for her works depicting doleful, saucer-eyed subjects (4).

Margaret Keane’s fascination with eyes began when she was two, after a mastoid operation, which left her with eardrum damage and hearing loss. Because of this, she often found herself studying people’s eyes as they talked to augment what was being said. At age 10, she began drawing sketches of angels with her trademark large eyes and floppy wings, which led her to art school.

Sidenote: I recently interviewed Marc Safran, a Syracuse-based strabismus specialist and professional photographer, who further highlighted the importance of focusing on eyes in understanding a person. He comments: “I came to realize that the first thing someone looks at in a portrait is the subject’s eyes. We read – consciously and subconsciously – the emotion of a subject by where their gaze is fixed, how relaxed the eyelids are, and how vibrant, bright, and alive (moist) the cornea is. I came to understand that with strabismus, the greatest harm is that it alters the natural gaze of a person and, in so doing, doesn’t allow the person to communicate normally with their eyes.” Read the full interview here

But let’s go back to Keane’s story. Her career was not without issues – her husband claimed to have been the artist behind the paintings. His claims were eventually disproven in a court case “paint-off,” where he did not even put paint to canvas, citing a sore shoulder, while Margaret painted a small big-eyed boy in just 53 minutes.

Although Keane’s works have fetched large sums at auctions, they have polarized audiences and critics alike, with many saying that, although they love the pieces, they wouldn’t be able to live with them. And that’s possibly because the paintings often reflected her inner sadness at the world and the wickedness within it, again highlighting the eyes’ ability to convey deeper emotions… Keane’s later works seem happier but, even with the change in tone, the eyes remained big.

If you have any thoughts you’d like to share, please send them via [email protected] or comment below.

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  1. K Lorenz, Journal of Animal Psychology, 5, 235 (1943). DOI: 10.1111/j.1439-0310.1943.tb00655.x.
  2. ML Glocker et al, Ethology, 115, 257 (2009). PMID: 22267884.
  3. IMDB, “Big Eyes” (2022), Available at:
  4. Keane Eyes Gallery, (2022), Available at:
About the Author
Oscelle Boye

Associate Editor, The Ophthalmologist

I have always been fascinated by stories. During my biomedical sciences degree, though I enjoyed wet lab sessions, I was truly in my element when sitting down to write up my results and find the stories within the data. Working at Texere gives me the opportunity to delve into a plethora of interesting stories, sharing them with a wide audience as I go.

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