The Highwaymen, also referred to as the Florida Highwaymen, are a group of 26 African American landscape artists in Florida. Taught by Alfred “Beanie” Backus, they created a body of work of over 200,000 paintings, despite facing many racial and cultural barriers. Mostly from the Fort Pierce area, they painted landscapes and made a living selling them door-to-door to businesses and individuals throughout Florida from the mid-1950s through the 1980s. They also peddled their work from the trunks of their cars along the eastern coastal roads (A1A and US 1).
For over 60 years The Highwaymen created large numbers of relatively inexpensive landscape paintings using construction materials rather than traditional art supplies. As no galleries would accept their work, they sold them in towns and cities and along roadsides throughout Florida, often still wet, out of the trunks of their cars. Their success and longevity is remarkable considering they began their career in the racially unsettled and violent times of the 50s in Florida and amid the social conditions of the Jim Crow South where the stirrings of the civil rights movement were only just beginning. They have been called “The Last Great American Art Movement of the 20th century”.
In 1955, 19-year-old African American artist Harold Newton was convinced by A. E. Backus, a prominent Florida landscape artist, to create paintings of landscapes rather than religious scenes. Newton sold his landscapes from the trunk of his car because art galleries in South Florida refused to represent African Americans. The following year, 14-year-old Alfred Hair began taking formal art lessons from Backus and, after three years, also began selling landscape paintings. Newton and Hair inspired a loose-knit group of African American artists to follow their leads. Newton is recognized by fellow artists for his technical inspiration while Hair is the considered the leader and catalyst “who set the tone for the group through the 1960s.” They attracted a group of a “young, energetic” artists who painted large quantities of brilliantly colorful impressionistic landscapes that they each sold from their cars. In 1970, the group lost its charismatic leader when Hair was killed in a barroom brawl at age 29 and the prodigious output of the movement’s artists began to wane. By the 1980s, a shift in public tastes and the growth of corporate entities like Disney World further reduced the demand for the movement’s art.
In the mid-1990s Jim Fitch, a Florida art historian, and Jeff Klinkenberg, of the St. Petersburg Times wrote several newspaper articles about the group whom Fitch dubbed “The Florida Highwaymen” for their business of selling art door-to-door along Florida’s Highway 1. The attention created new interest for their idyllic landscapes of natural settings in Florida igniting sales of the paintings. This activity increased the value of the artwork and created further demand. All 26 Florida Highwaymen were inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004.
Their renown grew internationally during the early 2000s and the 26 members have been recognized for their extensive contribution and vivid documentation of mid-twentieth century Florida culture and history. Of the remaining artists in the original group (13 deceased) all but one artist continue to paint to this day, more than 50 years since they first started to paint, even though most artists are now in their 70s and some nearing their 80s. Over time their style has evolved into more carefully created works and away from the original “fast painting” techniques that enabled them to produce large quantities of paintings in their early years.