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The Florida Highwaymen, a group of African-American landscape artists from the mid-20th century, represent a vibrant chapter in the history of American art.

Working outside the confines of the mainstream art world, these self-taught painters captured the essence of Florida's natural beauty in their work.

Today, their distinctive pieces serve as visual records of the state's landscape, and their legacy is celebrated as a testament to their perseverance, talent, and entrepreneurial spirit.

Harold Newton painting

Origins of the Florida Highwaymen

The Florida Highwaymen's story began in the early 1950s in Fort Pierce, Florida, when a young African-American artist named Alfred Hair was introduced to landscape painting by A.E. "Bean" Backus, a renowned Florida landscape artist.

Inspired by Backus's work, Hair sought to emulate his style, but with a more rapid and cost-effective approach.

He began painting vivid landscapes on inexpensive materials, such as Upson board or Masonite, using house paint instead of traditional artists' oils.

Hair's innovation quickly caught the attention of other young African-American artists in the area, including Harold Newton, one of the original Highwaymen.

This informal group of painters adopted Hair's method and began producing a large number of paintings, establishing the basis for the Florida Highwaymen style.

Highwaymen Art

The Highwaymen's Unique Artistic Approach

With limited access to formal art education or gallery representation due to racial segregation, the Florida Highwaymen forged their path in the art world.

Their works often featured lush tropical landscapes, serene beach scenes, vibrant sunsets, and other iconic Florida imagery.

The artists would paint quickly, sometimes completing multiple works in a single day, in order to meet the demands of their growing clientele.

The group was given the name "Highwaymen" because they would travel the state's highways and byways, selling their art directly to businesses, motels, banks, and individual collectors from the trunks of their cars.

This resourcefulness enabled the artists to bypass the traditional gallery system, overcoming the barriers of discrimination and establishing a thriving market for their work.

The original Highwaymen artists included:

  1. Alfred Hair (1941-1970): One of the founders of the Florida Highwaymen, Hair was inspired by A.E. "Bean" Backus and developed the rapid painting techniques that defined the group's style. He primarily focused on landscape paintings. Sadly, he was murdered in a tragic shooting at only 29 years old. Learn more about Alfred Hair.

  2. Harold Newton (1934-1994): A founding member of the Florida Highwaymen, Newton was known for his attention to detail and strong sense of realism in his landscape paintings, capturing the essence of Florida's natural beauty. Learn more about Harold Newton.

  3. James Gibson (1938-2017): Gibson was an original member of the Florida Highwaymen known for his striking sunsets and landscapes. He used vibrant colors to capture the spirit of Florida's scenery.

  4. Livingston Roberts (1942-2004): As an original Highwayman, Roberts painted atmospheric landscapes, showcasing Florida's rich and diverse environments. His work often featured cypress trees, marshlands, and waterways.

  5. Roy McLendon (born 1932): McLendon is an original member of the Florida Highwaymen, known for his colorful landscapes and detailed portrayals of Florida's natural beauty, including palm trees, beaches, and marshlands.

  6. Sam Newton (born 1948): As Harold Newton's younger brother, Sam Newton became an original member of the Florida Highwaymen. He shares a similar style with his brother, capturing the natural beauty of Florida through vibrant colors and expressive brushstrokes.

  7. Willie Daniels (born 1950): Daniels is an original Highwayman known for his depictions of Florida's landscapes, often featuring palm trees, beach scenes, and wetlands. He is skilled in creating depth and atmosphere in his paintings.

Alfred Hair Highwaymen Art

Discrimination and Racism

In the mid-20th century, the United States was still grappling with the Jim Crow era's deeply ingrained racial divisions. Being African-Americans, the Florida Highwaymen artists faced significant racial discrimination and segregation during their early years. 

One example of the discrimination they faced is the origin of the name "Highwaymen" itself.

Initially, this term was meant to be derogatory, as their work was not considered "fine art" by the mainstream galleries and art critics.

The Florida Highwaymen artists defied these prejudices by embracing the name and continuing to produce and sell their artwork, ultimately gaining recognition and respect within the art world.


Highwaymen Art


The Legacy of the Florida Highwaymen

The Florida Highwaymen were active from the 1950s through the 1980s, with their peak period of production occurring during the 1960s and 1970s.

Over the years, the group produced an estimated 200,000 paintings, leaving a significant impact on Florida's cultural landscape.

In the years since, the Florida Highwaymen have gained national recognition and acclaim for their art.

In 2004, the original 26 artists were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame, solidifying their status as important contributors to the history of American art.

The works of the Florida Highwaymen now command high prices at auctions and are sought after by collectors worldwide. As the artists' reputation has grown, so too has appreciation for their unique place in American art history.

Their work not only captures the natural beauty of Florida but also serves as a testament to the resilience and talent of a group of artists who overcame adversity to share their vision with the world.

The Florida Highwaymen's story is a remarkable tale of creativity, entrepreneurship, and triumph over adversity.

These self-taught African-American artists, working outside the mainstream art world, captured the essence of Florida's landscape and created a lasting visual record of the state's natural beauty.

Their legacy continues to inspire generations of artists and serves as a powerful reminder of the transformative power of art.