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Foreword by Gary R. Libby
Of the many developments in regional art in the American twentieth century, none has received more recent attention than the works of the so-called Highwaymen, a group of African-American painters from the Fort Pierce area of central eastern coastal Florida. Some later members of the group still paint there today.
While many commentators suggest the significance of the relationship between A.E. “Bean” Backus (1906–1990), the dean of modern Florida landscape painting, and this group, finally this book puts the dynamic into proper perspective, as author Catherine M. Enns carefully probes this delicate relationship between Backus and the bohemian circle he created, including a few young African-American artists who later developed into a loose confederation of like-minded painters of uneven skill and talent known as the Highwaymen.
Unlike African-American artists of the Harlem Renaissance—the flowering of the arts in New York City during the 1920s and 1930s, where painting, sculpture, dance, music, theater, and literature joined sociology, historiography, and philosophy in a series of cultural manifestos that explored the experiences of black Americans and black life in the urbanized North—the Highwaymen were a simpler lot preoccupied with making a living by painting personal renditions of the Florida landscape that hover between the naïve folk traditions of amateur popular art and the more sophisticated visions of earlier generations of talented and well-trained representational artists who painted in Florida, such as Herman Herzog (1831–1920), Martin Johnson Heade (1819–1904) and Winslow Homer (1836–1920).
The eloquent arguments are illuminated with marvelous illustrations of over two hundred colorful and evocative paintings, drawn primarily from the private collection of Jonathan Otto and showcasing most of the styles of the entire group of twenty-six historic and living Highwaymen artists. Otto is an entrepreneur from Palm Beach County, Florida, who aggressively assembled a large and impressive group of both Backus and Highwaymen art over a six-year period.
Moreover, Enns also explores, for the first time, the cultural context that surrounded this movement, including race relations in Florida, civil rights issues, and the development of popular souvenir art in Florida and the South.
Taken as a whole, this volume opens more completely a door into the unique world of this artistic subculture where, through the support and mentoring of professional artist A.E. Backus, a small group of talented but generally self-taught artists recreated their own world through bright and colorful decorative renditions of the Florida landscape.
In spite of the inferior materials they used, and in spite of their formulaic and often primitive technical approaches to painting as a source of fast financial gain, some Highwaymen art seems to be headed into the permanent history of the development of popular and folk art in Florida and the South.
The Journey of the Highwaymen is the most complete study to date of this interesting and mercurial group of Florida artists. Artists’ biographies, a fine selected bibliography, and a succinct index all contribute to the usefulness of this handsome, new, and complete look at the Florida Highwaymen and the large body of decorative and stylized artwork they produced.
Gary R. Libby
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