THE HIGHWAYMEN - Revisited
by Jim Fitch
As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring
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 Floridas resident/regional art tradition.
The Highwaymen were that beginning and paintings by
these artists have suddenly become very collectible.
Although its still possible to find
their work in garage sales and flea markets, its 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 theyre 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 wasnt 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. Im 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.
Its also difficult to identify the artists who best represent
either style because theres some of each in all. Mary Carrolls
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
The Museum of Florida's
Art and Culture.
Art Around Florida
The Best Antiques Guide Magazine
in the U.S.!
[Top of Page | Editorial Articles | Home]