Harold was born on October 30, 1934, in Gifford, Florida, an African American town just north of Vero Beach. It was a place where blacks could purchase farm land and become part of an energetic black business community. His father was a share cropper, who was perhaps poorer than most, and his mother was a seamstress. She was part Native American and his father was part white.
Sources vary about Harold’s early life. According to Ancestry.com, he had two half-sisters and two half-brothers, Sam (b.1948) and Lemuel (b.1950), who also became Highwaymen painters. Both Catherine Enns and Gary Monroe, the Highwaymen biographers, state that Harold was one of fifteen children. His mother, Rachel, was 37 years younger than Fred, his father. Since many sisters have commented on his life and art, he no doubt came from a larger family than is noted on Ancestry.com.
The 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. Harold 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 and he needed to make money to support his family. He moved back to Gifford the same year to work in the orange groves and with clean up crews. Upon returning to his place of birth, he reunited with a childhood friend named Dorothy and against the wishes of her family, they became engaged. In order to break up the young couple, Harold’s mother who still lived in Tifton, faked an illness and requested that Harold come home to care for her. While there, he got Caronias White pregnant, and they were married. In order to keep his new family fed, Harold worked in the fields and at a car lot, also selling his velvet paintings.
In 1953, Harold’s house caught fire and, looking for a fresh start, he returned to Gifford with Caronias and his daughter. It was at this time that he became intent in establishing himself as a successful artist. Dorothy, who would become the love of his life, still lived in Gifford, but had married Harry Collier. Her marriage, like Harold’s, was not a happy one, and she still loved Harold.
Harold Newton met Bean Backus in 1954, a year before Alfred Hair was introduced to the white landscape painter. Their friendship marked a turning point in Harold’s life. According to a 1959 article in the Miami Herald, Marjorie Silver reported that when Harold knocked on the studio door “Backus was working on one of his distinctive sunlit, windswept pictures…. He [Harold] was warmly welcomed and invited to sit around and watch.” The two artists had similar interests that overcame differences in race and economic status. Most sources agree that Bean encouraged Harold to change his subject matter to landscapes, although there is some documentation that he may have previously created some landscapes, perhaps on black velvet. Since Backus was painting on Upson board, Harold also began using it for a painting surface. He began painting landscapes using house paint and brushes purchased from the local dime store and was able to sell these works for $10 a piece, considerably more than he had received for religious scenes.
No formal instruction ever took place between Backus and Harold. Don Brown, Bean’s Studio Manager, claimed that Harold’s skill at painting was something he “just picked up.” 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. Brown claimed that Harold was just that talented, partly because he had a photographic memory.
Harold became captivated by the way Backus used a palette knife. He was able to apply thick layers of paint that almost sculpted his version of a palm tree. And with this amazing tool, he created thin layers of grass with quick stokes using the knife’s edge. After unsuccessfully trying to make a fruit cutting knife function like a palette knife, Harold purchased his own painting knife. Working with this new tool soon became part of his routine, and he noticed that the paintings he created with the knife sold better than those he made with a brush. Harold also formulated marks with other objects, including spoons and feathers. He often signed his name, “H. Newton,” with a rusty nail.
When Alfred Hair met Harold, he became enamored by his artistic ability. According to his sister, Gladys Hair Bennet, Alfred would sometimes skip school to watch Harold paint. Many others learned from Harold as well, including Roy McLendon, Mary Ann Carroll, Livingston Roberts and Willie Daniels. But Harold didn’t teach through verbal instruction any more than Backus had done with him. He taught by example. Unlike Backus, however, who could easily carry on a conversation when he painted, Newton’s attention was fully focused on his work. When he worked, he didn’t drink or joke around like so many of the other Highwaymen. Disciplined and serious about his role as an artist, it is said that 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.
Harold’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 the roads north. He sold to doctors, lawyers, and business people. 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. Story goes that one time 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.
Harold was soon able to purchase a new Eldorado Cadillac. This car made him stand out and he was envied by his neighbors and fellow painters. As he journeyed, he’d often stop to fish, giving him time to enjoy the scenery and some quiet time alone. His love for fishing extended to an enjoyment for cooking and eating seafood. He’d eat raw oysters and cook blow fish. But he loved other kinds of southern food as well, such as pigs feet. Like so many other people during the 1950s and 60s, both black and white, Harold listened to soul music and often sang Sam Cooke songs. Carnell Smith remembers that he liked to sing spiritual hymns, especially those sung by The Mighty Clouds of Joy, a gospel group formed in the 1960s that added soul, rock, and R & B to their musical style.
Some collectors knew Harold as the 5’6” guy with a cowboy hat and boots. He frequently went to Mathers Bridge Restaurant on South Merritt Island to sell works and was a regular visitor to the Indian River County administration building. David Nolte, the county’s property appraiser and his wife Michelle, a bookkeeper in the same office, purchased fourteen Harold Newton paintings over the years. Michelle claimed that one small ocean scene was so compelling that it made her want to jump in.
Later, he noticed that sales seemed to go better when he drove a car decorated with orange and yellow flames. Fancy cars seemed to grab people’s attention.
Jean Tyson, who once was co-owner of Tyson’s Trading Company in Micanopy, Florida, was a Newton fan. She claims that he always saw himself first and foremost as an artist. It mattered to him that his work was done well.
Harold continued to paint and sell on the highways. Eventually he and Caronias had three children together. Dorothy and Harry ended up raising six children. In the late 1950s, Harold separated from Caronias and went to live in Fort Pierce. Over the years, he had relationships with other women and may have fathered maybe eleven children.
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 Bar or The Green Leaf. Demonstrating his grand success, Harold would often buy a round for everyone in the bar. When he drank, he became more extroverted and he enjoyed telling jokes. It was during these times that he could be the life of the party.
Most everyone says Harold was a heavy drinker. He was a wanderer, both in his movements from place to place, and with his female relationships. However, his love for Dorothy never seemed to waver. Harold would often visit her when he came to Gifford after his travels.
Dorothy filed for divorce in 1981, shortly before Harold and Caronias legally dissolved their marriage. But her divorce was not intended as a pathway to marry Harold. Her teenage son had been murdered, and overwhelmed by the experience, she moved to her sister’s house to find some peace. By this time she believed she was too old for a romance or a new marriage. Nevertheless, the couple’s love and admiration for each other won out, and on December 6, 1983, she married Harold Newton in the Vero Beach County Courthouse. It was an emotional day for both the bride and groom. They moved to Melbourne for a new start. After a year they settled in Palm Bay. Dorothy continued to do cleaning work at the First Baptist Church in Vero Beach, a position she had held for over two decades. After two more years of working there, she resigned due to a formation of blood clots in her leg. Harold was a devoted husband to Dorothy. He tempered his drinking and accompanied his new wife to church. He happily painted, fished, and cooked.
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 Dorothy was not well enough to care for him after the stroke. 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. Harold was buried at the African American Gifford Cemetery. His grave site, unlike his life, is unremarkable.
Harold’s painting surfaces went from paper, to velvet, to Upson Board in 1954, and to Masonite in 1970. He’d paint for a while and then step back to evaluate what he had done. Harold was his own best critic.
Harold didn’t like making frames and therefore he often used old ones he’d purchased from a yard sale or thrift shop. Occasionally he’d add paint to a frame to make it relate more clearly to the painting. Sometimes he’d use notched frames made by his friend Lincoln Allen. If he did make a frame, it was usually substantial.
Like his two brothers, Sam and Lemuel, the quality of Harold’s work was important to him. More attention was paid to the composition and quality of the paintings than many of the other Highwaymen. Still, he could produce paintings quickly when he had to. It wasn’t unusual for him to produce three or four works a day. Painting, after all, was the way he made a living. Newton’s works, which once sold for very modest prices, can now command five figure sums.
Harold Newton’s color sense was well versed and his emotional range was varied and well communicated. He looked at the world around him and envisioned how to construct a landscape scene that wasn’t readily visible to an ordinary observer. He showed you how to see Florida’s grand scenery in a new way. There is no doubt that he was one of the most accomplished and talented of the all the Highwaymen.