The emerging art market for highwayman paintings has arrived during the last decade. Art that once sold for $25.00 or was bought at a garage sale for a few dollars now sells for well over several thousand dollars. Highwayer art collecting is a rewarding and exciting field. This type of art is new enough that collectors can still find bargains, but old enough that the artist’s reputation has been established.
The Highwaymen were a group of black Florida landscape painters from the Ft. Pierce area who sold their paintings during the 1950s and 1980s. Their paintings were designed for tourists, vacationers, businesses, and new homeowners. They painted colorful tropical scenes depicting Florida’s pristine beaches and countryside.
The movement’s beginnings began when well-known Florida artist AE ‘Bean’ Backus, now considered the doyen of Florida landscape artists, met Harold Newton in 1954. Backus inspired Harold to paint Florida landscape scenes instead of the religiously themed scenes Harold was currently painting. Harold Newton had a natural artistic talent and was able to easily change his art to capture the tropical landscape. Harold taught his younger brother, Sam Newton, how to paint in his style and they created some of the finest quality highwayman art. Since Harold couldn’t find any representation in the gallery, he decided to sell his paintings door to door. Harold loaded up his vehicle with fresh paint and drove up and down the Florida coast. He sold many paintings straight 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, the year after Harold Newton met AE Backus, Alfred Hair began receiving formal art lessons from Backus. Alfred learned some basic oil painting techniques from Backus. Alfred continued his lessons with Backus for approximately 2 years. By then, Harold had already been successful with his marketing method of selling paintings door to door, traveling up and down Florida’s limited main roads. Although Alfred Hair did not aspire to paint of exceptional quality like AE Backus or Harold Newton did, he saw a way to make money. Alfred took what he learned from Bean Backus, combined with the way Harold sold his art, and created mass-produced Florida oil paintings. Alfred wasn’t looking to make great art, he was looking to make a quick buck from the tourist market. Alfred had a vision and enlisted the help of several friends to make the Highwaymen Paintings. They built picture frames out of crown molding and marketed the finished artwork. Some of his artificers even became renowned painters.
Jim Fitch coined the name “Highwaymen” during a 1995 article he wrote about this group of 26 painters. The name fits the bill, but the number of painters is not set in stone. Some people claim that they were part of this group from the beginning, others say that there were fewer than 26 painters and that at least one artist does not want affiliation. Today, several other Florida artists paint in the style of highwaymen and even their art is finding a new collector’s market. One thing is very clear, if it weren’t for AE Backus, there would be no Highwaymen or Highwaymen style art. Now that he knows how the highwayman art movement started, the best way to collect it is to buy the best painting you can afford from artists who have a good reputation for quality work. Study his work and see what aspects of him you like. Ask yourself: do you like brush strokes or palette knife work?… ask the salesperson what the condition of the board is… or is it scratched, chipped or warped? Select the artist(s) whose work has been strong and consistent. Don’t buy a highwaymen paint just for the highwaymen name, buy it based on the strength of the paint. A quality paint is an investment that will always hold its value and appreciate well into the future.