Many people in Florida know about Highwaymen paintings, due to massive localized media attention and published books and articles. But many people outside of the sunshine state have never heard of the group of African American artists, who in the 1950’s, captured on canvas the old Florida of the past, before industry took over and bulldozers plowed the land. These artists grew up in a time when Florida was ripe, the seas were less polluted and palm trees were everywhere, blowing in the balmy breeze of the east coast. The artists were from the Ft. Pierce area, and under direction from Alfred Hair and Harold Newton, two of the most famous Highwaymen artists, they learned the formula for painting landscapes, but incorporated their own style and painted fast, in order to make money by selling as many paintings as they could within a day. These artists were racially discriminated against, and could not display their works in galleries, so they resourcefully sold their art from their cars. Their works have now become legendary, and the Highwaymen art collecting trend shows no signs of slowing down.
What makes Highwaymen Art popular is the look, many windswept stormy beaches, intense colors, the way the paint was applied to the canvas, which consisted of old masonite from nearby construction sites and shabby chic type frames, often left unpainted. In some cases, it is folk art, in other works, many examples of fine art, the work has forever captured the intense tropical beauty that only Florida has to offer, in a style that appears mysterious and almost mystical.
Stormy ocean waves with buoyant palm trees, and old Florida swamp with lingering osprey, orange and blue backgrounds, red sunsets, unusual and even funky looking, some paintings matching the color themes of the eras, so people would buy them more to match their interior better. A lot of the Highwaymen were real entrepreneurs, for since they weren’t able to sell art in the galleries, they would go door to door as well, some notoriously good at doing this, like a salesman would hock his wares, they could sell their work. The art wasn’t only bought by the local businesses and friends and neighbors, but tourists traveling through the South in these eras often picked up a Florida painting, though stories of a lost Highwaymen painting found up North is rare. I remember staying at a motel in Florida as a child and seeing Highwaymen Art on the wall. If I only knew back then how important the works would be I would have had my mother buy the painting and lug it back to New York!
The historic significance of Highwaymen Art must be acknowledged as well, for most of the old Florida scenery which inspired the artists is gone, Florida’s expansive land developments having taken their toll on the ecosystem. Now people hang Highwaymen Art on their wall and see Florida as it once was, a place of wild tropical beauty, forever captured by the artists who appreciated their culture and surroundings enough to put oil to canvas and let their immense talent flow and breathe life into their naturalistic works.
Today you can go to Florida’s galleries or look on-line and in shops as well. Ebay is a great place to check out Highwaymen Art, if you do not live in Florida to visit a gallery. You can also check out the Backus Museum Gallery on-line, for they have pictures of Highwaymen Art and A.E. Bean Backus, the man who taught two of the beginning Highwaymen Artists his technique. There are some good books as well written about the Highwaymen, with mostly colorful pictures inside that show up-close the detail of the artists technique, themes and colors that make Highwaymen Art unique.