Robert Butler, a painter who was part of group of acclaimed self-taught artists called the Highwaymen, died Wednesday at a Lakeland nursing home, according to media reports. The cause was complications related to a 30-year history of diabetes. He was 70.
The Highwaymen were a loose confederation of several dozen African-American landscape painters, all self-taught, who sold their works along west-central Florida roadsides or door-to-door beginning in the mid 1950s through the mid 1980s. It was an alternative to earning a living working a minimum wage job or a way to supplement one.
They were an obscure group, did not even consider themselves a group, until Jim Fitch, an art historian and collector who saw the similarities in their art, began to track them down in the 1990s. He gave them the Highwaymen moniker. It was a catchy name and that, along with the intriguing notion of an undiscovered form of folk art, made the Highwaymen suddenly collectible. By that time, some of the Highwaymen had died but Mr. Butler became one of the more famous representatives of the movement.
Robert Butler was born in 1943 in Baxley, Ga. The family moved to Okeechobee when he was a toddler and his mother supported them as a maid, waitress and farm worker. Mr. Butler took up painting in 1968 so was not part of the first generation of Highwaymen.
He also departed a bit from the formulaic nature of their landscapes, which always represented rural Florida in nostalgic, romanticized images and vibrant colors. He liked to include wildlife and often was more restrained in his palette.
Serious collectors today pay thousands of dollars for Highwaymen art. But before they were discovered, paintings sold for $35 or less, and the artists had to be prolific. Mr. Butler often produced 100 works a year.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.