Harold Newton (1934 - 1994)
Born: Gifford, Florida
Harold Newtons family moved to Tifton, Georgia six or seven years after Harold’s birth. He drew pictures early in his life, and by the seventh grade Harold was working on portraits. After a few years, he began painting religious scenes on black velvet. These images were popular in black Georgia communities, but his patrons couldn’t afford to pay much so they were sold for $2.50 each. Black churches purchased many of these early paintings, but he also sold his work by the side of the road and knocked on many doors hoping to make a sale.
Harold dropped out of school at the age of 16, after his father died. He needed to make money to support his family so he moved back to Gifford the same year to work in the orange groves. In 1954 Harold met Bean Backus the white Florida landscape painter. They developed a friendship that marked the turning point in Harolds life. Harold would not receive any formal training from Backus. However, Harold was invited to sit and watch Backus paint. Harold was naturally talented and was able to learn from Backus by watching and then going home and practing what he had seen that day. It is said that Harold had a photgraphic memory allowing him to absorb and learn Backus techniques and painting methods. Newton became captivated by the way Backus used the palette knife. With much practice and determination Newton was soon using the palette knife to create his florida Landscapes.
Alfred Hair, Roy Mclendon, Mary Ann Carrol, Livingston Roberts and Willie Daniels were all taught how to paint by Harold. Harold did not teach through verbal instruction he taught by example similar to how he learned from Backus. When he worked, he didn’t drink or joke like so many of the other Highwaymen. Disciplined and serious about his role as an artist, he considered himself to be the “Greatest Artist in the South.” He was driven by the pride he had in his work, but he also knew he had to paint to live. Still, other than acknowledging his exceptional ability as an artist, according the Mary Ann Carroll, he considered himself just like everybody else.
Newton’s work soon became popular and he stopped picking oranges. Early prices were only $10 but they quickly increased to $75 and more. Increasingly he took to the roads north. He sold to doctors, lawyers, and businesspeople. Late in a day of sales, he would allow his paintings to go for lower prices. Rarely did he return home with unsold works. Word of mouth spread and sometimes customers came looking for him. He frequently exchanged his landscapes for car payments and other pending expenses such as rent. When his twins were born, he paid the hospital bills with some of his works, and they were displayed on the hospital walls. Harold, like several other Highwaymen, was able to get out of legal trouble in exchange for his paintings. Once when he was pulled over for speeding on Indian River Drive and couldn’t post bond, he got the money after selling two paintings to the deputy sheriff. He even had a little cash left over from the sale.
Some remember Newton as a loner; others, like Mary Ann Carroll, say he was always friendly to her. He was a lady’s man who didn’t hang out with the other artists all that much. He picked his friends carefully, perhaps being closest to Livingston Roberts and Roy McLendon. When he felt the need to be alone, he would sometimes disappear for days. For a while, he had a trailer in the woods just outside Fort Pierce where he painted in isolation. In the evenings he sometimes joined others for a drink at Eddie’s or The Green Leaf. Demonstrating his grand success, he would often buy a round for everyone in the bar. When Harold drank, he became more extroverted and he enjoyed telling jokes. It was during these times that he could be the life of the party.
Newton’s life ended in Vero Beach on June 27, 1994, a year after experiencing a debilitating stroke. He was 59 years old. He had painted until he could no longer hold a brush. He died at his sister Annette’s house. Because his hospital bills were so high, his family had to sell every painting they had to take care of the debt; friends and relatives also helped with the medical bills. Attendance at his funeral was exceptionally strong as an entire community grieved his death. He was buried at the African American Gifford Cemetery. His gravesite, unlike his life, is unremarkable.
Harold Newton’s passing came just as the resurgence of interest in the African American landscape painters began. He missed experiencing the great praise his work now elicits from far and wide.
Harold Newton Biography information: obtained from website thehighwaymentrail.com. This website is a fantastic reference to learn about the 26 Florida Highwaymen artists and their importance to Florida's history.