Widely hailed as the most talented of the Florida Highwaymen painters, and often referred to as “the original Highwayman,” Harold Newton is the artist who, along with Alfred Hair, is credited with founding the group of painters who came together in Fort Pierce, Fla. to make and sell their work.
Born in the historic African American enclave of Gifford in Vero Beach, Fla. on October 30, 1934, Newton was one of an estimated 14 children in his family according to The Highwaymen Trail, a heritage trail organization run by the city of Fort Pierce and the Florida Humanities Council. The Newton family moved to Georgia around 1940, and in 1950 Harold struck out on his own at the age of 16 and returned to Gifford.
Interested in art from an early age, The Highwaymen Trail describes Newton as an industrious child artist, drawing and painting portraits and religious scenes that he would sell to churches and community members. It was a fateful meeting in 1954 with well-known and successful white painter A.E. “Beanie” Backus that would cement his future as an accomplished and celebrated Florida landscape painter.
It was Backus, the story goes, who encouraged Newton to switch to landscape painting on Upson board. Although never formally taught by Backus, as Alfred Hair was, Newton spent a great deal of time at the artist’s studio, studying his techniques and then returning home to replicate what he’d learned that day using house paint and inexpensive brushes. “Don Brown, Bean’s Studio Manager, claimed that Harold’s skill at painting was something he ‘just picked up,’” reports The Highwaymen Trail. “He’d watch Bean paint a scene and go home and paint the same scene in about two hours. He’d then bring his work back to show to Backus, amazing the elder artist.” Impressed by Newton’s talent and ambition, Backus encouraged the young painter and soon Newton’s works were selling for as much as $75.
Newton is sometimes credited with creating the door-to-door selling style of the Highwaymen artists and, having successfully pioneered his own sales from his car to professional offices out on the road, it’s possible that the Highwaymen sales style grew from the model he created. He also served as inspiration, mentor, and teacher to a number of the artists in the group, including Hair, Livingston Roberts, Roy McLendon, Mary Ann Carroll, and Willie Daniels. Hair would go on to perfect his “fast style” of painting, but Newton remained a careful and studied painter, completing around four paintings a day to Hair’s twenty or thirty. Four paintings a day is a significant output for any painter, and while he preferred that less frantic pace, he could increase his production when he needed to. As noted Highwaymen expert and author Gary Moore put it in a 2007 blog post for Art and Antiques Around Florida, “The bottom-line concerning Harold Newton’s productivity was the one offered by his brother, Lemuel Newton, who told me, ‘There’s got to be a lot of ‘em.’”
When viewed as a whole, Newton’s body of work stands apart from that of his Highwaymen colleagues in its technical acuity. As Gary Moore noted in the 2007 blog post, “Harold Newton’s body of work was viewed by art fanciers as being in a class of its own. His art was even revered by the other Highwaymen, despite their own individual successes.” A master of creating layered and detailed scenes with a palette knife, Newton’s work is noted for its emotive nature, and his skill at evoking the temperament of a moment through his Impressionistic use of light.
Harold Newton painted until a debilitating stroke left him unable to work. He died a year later on June 27, 1994 at the young age of 59, on the eve of a Highwaymen renaissance he didn’t live to see. “Newton’s story, like those of the other Highwaymen, shines a fresh new light on the 1960s in Florida through the exposition of his personal and professional journeys,” Gary Moore wrote, as way of introduction to his book Harold Newton: The Original Highwayman. “As he traveled around the Sunshine State while selling his paintings from the back of his car, Newton left an unsurpassed testament to Florida as Paradise. His aesthetic was perfectly suited to the new Floridians who had relocated here during the years after World War II, believing that living was better here. In the eyes of these newcomers, his paintings affirmed that the magical place they imagined existed.”
Inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 2004, Newton’s work hangs in numerous notable collections around the world and is part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture and the U.S. Department of State’s prestigious Art in Embassies program.