by Jim Fitch

As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring 1997

Since I first reported on the group of black artists I labeled the Highwaymen in the “Collecting Florida” issue of Antiques and Art Around Florida (Winter/Spring 1995), interest in their work has spread beyond belief. There is even a newly formed Highwaymen Collectors Society in West Palm Beach. The research that led me to uncover the Highwaymen was done in an attempt to identify a point of beginning for what I refer to as Florida’s resident/regional art tradition. The Highwaymen were that beginning and paintings by these artists have suddenly become very collectible.

Although it’s still possible to find their work in garage sales and flea markets, it’s not as easy as it used to be. Paintings that sold for five and ten dollars three years ago now bring one to three hundred dollars. Expect the prices to rise, particularly on the better quality work.

A number of the Highwaymen are still painting and selling aggressively. Sam Newton, James Gibson, Roy McLendon and Mary Carroll come to mind. Unfortunately, in my opinion, their work has been affected by all the publicity the artists have received in the last three years. The great potential that was grounded in their naivete has become the heavy burden of conformity. Suddenly they are “artists”, conscious of trends and fads and governed by rules of composition and color. I get the feeling they’re painting to match the sofa rather than giving rein to their natural instincts, which is what made the work notable in the first place.


One exception might be James Gibson. He is moving away from the gaudy, monochromatic palette that characterized much of his work toward a fuller, richer spectrum. At the same time, he is developing the confidence that comes from the mastery of his medium and it shows in the way he applies paint. James, and some of the others, still paint on masonite occasionally, consequently that surface is no longer an indication of age for any of the Highwaymen paintings. Paintings on Upson board, because it has not been manufactured for quite some time, are a reliable indicator of early work by any of the Highwaymen.

When I began to investigate these artists, my interest was solely in the historical aspect of their art. I felt that they deserved recognition and credit for meeting a demand in the marketplace for Florida landscape paintings. A demand that grew out of a time of relative prosperity and cultural growth, such as it was, in the state. I wasn’t particularly interested in the aesthetics of the work, whether it was “good” art or “bad” art. For me it was just art with an historical significance. I’m now beginning to think differently.

One painting in particular was responsible for my new outlook. It is a small 10x15 inch seascape by Harold Newton, purchased from his brother, Sam. As I took time to contemplate the painting, I saw something other than what the artist had painted. I was able to look beyond the sky and surf and see the talent of the man himself. It was quite a revelation. What I saw was brushwork that was bold and sure. I saw an uncluttered composition, well balanced and meaningful. I saw color used without inhibition. In short, what I saw was a very good painting obviously done by an accomplished artist.

There is, in the classic tradition of painting, a method called ”alla prima”. The phrase translates literally as “all at once”. It means that the artist painted somewhat intuitively and usually without the benefit of a drawing or underpainting. To be good, it requires a confidence and a coordination of the hand and eye that can only be obtained by experience. A lot of it! Harold Newton, over the years, developed the skills essential for mastering alla prima painting. Intimacy with his subject, mastery of the medium, confidence and coordination. I had not recognized these characteristics in any of the work until I saw them, magnified, in that one small seascape.

This enhanced vision has added another dimension to my appreciation of the work done by the Highwaymen. It is, in some instances, very good art by any standard.

As I reported earlier, paintings by these artists can be placed in two categories. Those reflecting the strong influence of the groups' mentor, A. E. “Bean” Backus, and, secondly, others that are more an individual interpretation. Harold Newton is certainly the most accomplished of the former, although James Gibson and Sam Newton show promise.


The second category is more difficult to describe. It has some of the elements of “primitive” art, although not every one can agree what that is, and it can resemble genuine folk art, meaning it is free of artifice and undue influence from the academic art community. It might be considered less perfect realistically but more powerful emotionally. It’s also difficult to identify the artists who best represent either style because there’s some of each in all. Mary Carroll’s early works are very individual, as are some paintings by J. Daniels and Al Black.

In summary, I predict that interest will continue to grow, prices will rise, good pieces will become scarce and, unfortunately, the artists still working will be adversely influenced by all the notoriety. Astute collectors will seek out the older, better quality work and history will make a place for these artists who are the real beginning of a young, but rich, art tradition.

For additional reading on this subject, Click The Highwaymen

About the author: Jim Fitch is the Executive Director of
The Museum of Florida's Art and Culture.


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