Living Color: The Art of the Highwaymen

The Highwaymen are a group of African American artists celebrated for their distinctive paintings of Florida’s natural environment. Working in and around the Fort Pierce area beginning in the 1950s, these self-taught artists depicted the state’s scenic coastline and wild backcountry, often in dazzling combinations of color and tone. Brilliant tropical sunsets, windblown palms, towering sunlit clouds, and blooming poinciana trees are among the many subjects that have become iconic images of Florida in part because of the paintings that the Highwaymen created. In the state’s postwar boom years their paintings found an enthusiastic audience among a growing population of new residents and visitors. Unrecognized by the region’s art establishment of galleries and museums, the Highwaymen by necessity catered directly to their patrons, selling their paintings door-to-door along such thoroughfares as Route 1. It was from this practice that the name “Highwaymen” was later coined.

The popularity of Highwaymen paintings waned in the 1980s as the vision of Florida was reimagined by an ever-increasing population and once-pristine landscapes were lost to development. Then in the mid-1990s a new generation of collectors, with fresh eyes, rediscovered the paintings and began to assemble significant collections. These collectors saw the art of the Highwaymen as an important artistic legacy and together with several writers, scholars, and enthusiasts began the process of establishing the historical context and reevaluation of their work. Books and articles followed, bringing a new level of recognition for the achievements of these artists and, with that, growing popular acclaim. The contribution of the Highwaymen to the cultural life of Florida was formally recognized in 2004 when the group of 26 artists was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.

Living Color: The Art of the Highwaymen brings together 100 paintings by a core group of the Highwaymen including Al Black, Mary Ann Carroll, Willie Daniels, Johnny Daniels, James Gibson, Alfred Hair, Harold Newton, Sam Newton, Willie Reagan, and Livingston Roberts. Focusing on work produced from the 1950s to the 1980s, the exhibition is an in-depth examination of the group’s initial period of success when their groundbreaking style of fast painting was being developed. Fast painting is a hallmark and essential innovation of the Highwaymen. Facing limitations imposed by the racial prejudice of their time, they had little or no access to formal training or to conventional art markets.  To overcome these obstacles, they produced large numbers of works which could be sold at very affordable prices. Some estimates of the group’s overall production during their heyday exceed 200,000 paintings, with certain artists creating dozens of paintings per day. Their creative response to the racism they confronted resulted in an original artistic practice.

The exhibition brings special attention on two key artists, Harold Newton and Alfred Hair, and presents extensive examples of their work. Newton is considered the first artist to develop the Highwaymen style and the means of reaching an audience through door-to-door sales. He was arguably the most formally accomplished of the group, creating paintings that are more naturalistic, richly detailed, and varied in subject matter than the work of the other artists. Many of the Highwaymen in fact aspired to the standards he set. Today Newton’s work continues to be held in high regard and is avidly sought by contemporary collectors including those who have lent to this exhibition.

Alfred Hair was also a leader among the artists and a gifted innovator. He developed the fast painting techniques that were so influential and enabled the success of group’s enterprise. Hair’s paintings minimized descriptive detail and instead emphasized mood and atmosphere with broad tones of color and quick gestural brushwork. Clouds, trees, grasses, and wildlife are suggested with a shorthand of rapid strokes of color applied with a brush or a palette knife loaded with paint. There is often a sense of frenetic energy in Hair’s paintings that gives them a life beyond what is simply represented in the picture. Other artists emulated his style and were inspired by his drive to produce and succeed. Many learned to paint from him as assistants or simply by watching him work while socializing in his backyard studio Presenting this carefully selected body of works by a limited number of artists the exhibition seeks to provide a more nuanced understanding of the Highwaymen relationally and as individual artists.     

While Newton and Hair were primarily self-taught, their paintings are very much part of the lineage of American landscape painting that stretches back to the nineteenth century.  They learned the basic tenets of landscape painting from the renowned Fort Pierce artist A.E. “Bean” Backus, who welcomed both artists into his studio. Backus freely shared his knowledge with them and in Hair’s case provided more formal lessons. It was primarily the examples of Backus’s paintings, though, that guided Newton, Hair, and eventually other Highwaymen in creating their own work. Studying his paintings, they readily adopted many of the elements of Backus’s compositions and subject matter but transformed his artistic formulas through their own practice and vision. As a result, the Highwaymen have become Florida’s most recognized cohort of regional artists.

Drawn from five outstanding private collections, this exhibition also considers the role of collectors in preserving the legacy of these artists and reviving popular interest in their works and their extraordinary life stories. Through interviews with these collectors, exhibition curator Gary Monroe explores questions about why this work is fascinating and what drives them to collect it with such evident passion. With insights gained from his interviews and the opportunity to carefully examine more than 1,000 paintings in these combined collections, Monroe’s selections for the exhibition offer viewers a critical understanding of the work. It is an opportunity to see some of the strongest examples of Highwaymen painting and consider what the elements of their style express, and what their contribution is to the art of Florida.

The exhibition is organized by the Orlando Museum of Art and curated by Gary Monroe in collaboration with OMA curator Hansen Mulford. Monroe has been recognized as a leading scholar of the Highwaymen since the publication of his book, The Highwaymen: Florida’s African-American Landscape Painters (2001) which was instrumental in providing a contemporary understanding of their work. Monroe has also authored books on individual artists including Al Black, Mary Ann Carroll, and Harold Newton.

Untitled, Harold Newton

Untitled, Harold Newton

Harold Newton

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Untitled, Willie Daniels

Willie Daniels

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Untitled, Alfred Hair

Alfred Hair

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Untitled, Harold Newton 2

Harold Newton

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Untitled, Sam Newton

Sam Newton

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