Collecting Florida Highwaymen Art

The emerging art market for highwaymen paintings have arrived over the past decade. Art that once sold for $25.00 or bought at a garage sale for a few dollars now fetches upwards of Several Thousand dollars. Highwaymen art collecting is both a rewarding and exciting field. This type of art is new enough so that collectors can still find bargains, yet old enough where the artists reputations have become established.

The highwaymen artists were a group of black Florida landscape artists from the Ft. Pierce area who sold their paintings during the 1950’s though 1980’s. Their paintings were designed for tourists, people on vacation as well as businesses and new homeowners. They painted colorful tropical scenes which depicted pristine Florida beaches and countryside.

The beginnings of the movement began when well known Florida artist A.E. ‘Bean’ Backus, now considered the dean of Florida landscape painters, had a meeting in 1954 with Harold Newton. Backus inspired Harold to paint Florida landscape scenes instead of religious themed scenes which Harold was currently painting. Harold Newton had natural artistic talent and was easily able to change his art to capture the tropical scenery. Harold taught his younger brother Sam Newton how to paint in his style and they created some of the best quality highwaymen art. Because Harold couldn’t find any gallery representation, he decided to sell his paintings in a door to door manner. Harold loaded up his vehicle with new paintings and drove up and down the Florida Coast. He sold many paintings right out of the trunk of his car. Often he would simply walk into various businesses, stores and banks and make sales that way.

During 1955, one year after Harold Newton met A.E. Backus, Alfred Hair started receiving formal art lessons from Backus. Alfred learned some basic oil painting techniques from Backus. Alfred continued his lessons with Backus for about 2 years. By this time Harold had already found success with his marketing method of selling paintings door to door, traveling up and down Florida’s limited main highways. Although Alfred Hair didn’t aspire to paint in the exceptional quality as A.E. Backus or Harold Newton did, he saw an avenue for making money. Alfred took what he learned from Bean Backus, combined with the way Harold was selling his art and created mass produced Florida oil paintings. Alfred wasn’t looking to make great art, he was looking to make fast money from the thriving tourist market. Alfred had a vision and he enlisted the help of several friends to make the Highwaymen Paintings. They built picture frames out of crown molding and marketed the finished works of art. Some of his framers even became well known painters.

Jim Fitch coined the name “Highwaymen” during a 1995 article he wrote about this group of 26 painters. The name fits perfectly but the number of painters is not set in stone. Some people claim they were part of this group from the beginning, others say there were less than 26 painters and at least one artist wants no affiliation. Today several other Florida artists paint in the Highwaymen Style and even their art is finding a new Collectors Market. One thing is very clear, if it wasn’t for A.E. Backus, there wouldn’t be any Highwaymen or Highwaymen style art. Now that you know how the Highwaymen Art Movement began, the best way to collect it is to buy the best painting you can afford from the artists who have a good reputation for quality work. Study their work and see what aspects about it you like. Ask yourself – Do you like brush strokes or palette knife work?…ask the seller what’s the condition of the board?…or is it scratched, chipped or warped? Select the artist(s) whose work developed in a solid, consistent way. Don’t just buy a highwaymen painting because of the highwaymen name, buy it based on the strength of the painting. A quality painting is an investment which will always retain it’s value and appreciate in the future.

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