Albert Ernest “Beanie” Backus (1909 – 1990)

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Florida Beach with Palm Tree

Albert Backus was an American artist famous for his vivid Florida landscapes. Backus was mostly self-taught, although he did enjoy two summer stints at the Parsons School of Design in New York City. At Parsons he learned the academic principles of symmetry and design that he had previously explored instinctually. Backus always earned his living through his artistic talent, first as a commercial artist painting signs, billboards and theater marquees, and later encouraged by Dorothy Binney Putnam his first true patron, pursuing his landscape paintings as a full-time occupation. He painted vivid Florida landscapes, 1950′s kitsch images of the ubiquitous hibiscus and other tropical flowers, the beautiful Florida sunset, beach and river scenes and the spectacular vistas of the Everglades.

Windy Day

Much like a visual journal of his travels, Backus recorded his journeys through his artwork. During WWII, while in the Navy aboard the USS Hermitage, he painted in both watercolor and oils scenes of the South Pacific, the California coast and of the European ports he visited. Later in his life, he created a series of scenes of the Caribbean focusing on the Bahamas, Haiti and more prolifically of his second home in Jamaica. Backus spent his entire life studying his subjects and it is because of this passion for wildlife and plants combined with his natural talents that he was able to produce such accurate and captivating paintings.

Untitled Florida Beach Landscape

Many of Backus’ earlier paintings dating from the 1930s to the late 1960s are categorized as being more impressionistic than most of his later works, and were often done with a palette knife. Paint was applied to the canvas or board with impetuous and generous strokes. The palette knife was used deftly and with great courage. The juxtaposition of color next to color created a new and different reality for the viewer. Other than the early 20th century vacationing artists such as Winslow Homer or the Hudson River School icon Herman Herzog, Backus was the first artist to truly see the subtle beauty of Florida and to attempt to capture it on canvas. Backus was the seminal Florida landscape painter. All those who followed were in someway trying to emulate his work.

Fishing Shack

As Backus’ career progressed, his style evolved to a more refined style that relied more heavily on the brush rather than the palette knife. He spent more time on his later, more romanticized paintings; adding more details and increasingly painting commission pieces for patrons eager to own a Backus original for themselves.

The Everglades

Backus was also credited with teaching art to a wide range of students. No one truly knows how many artists actually studied with Backus or were merely mentored and inspired by him. Estimates are in the hundreds. Backus’ protégés are referred to as the Indian River School of artists. A great deal of misinformation circulates as to Backus’ role in the creation of the outsider art, a phenomenon referred to as the Florida highwaymen. To be sure, Alfred Hair, the driving force behind the loosely allied group of African-American artists and the inspiration to create hastily rendered images of a fantasized Florida was definitely an actual student of Backus. The remaining members of the approximately 26 African-American landscape painters painting in and around Fort Pierce, Florida, were certainly inspired by Backus’ success but they were not actual students of Backus. The Highwaymen directly copied Backus’ paintings with varying degrees of success; selling their paintings door-to-door and along the roadside at blue-collar prices.

Jamaican Fisherman

Backus was known for always having music playing in his home. He often had his record player playing, and some times even had Jazz musicians jamming. Backus was known to keep company with Zora Neale Hurston. They were known to be good friends and both had a passion for the youth of Fort Pierce, Florida. Backus was also kept company with aspiring young artists including Alfred Hair. Backus was known to keep company with people of all walks of life and all races. His house was often the half-way house for Haitians just off of the boat, friends down on their luck, or even just folks getting off of the bus from out of state. He liked to keep a lively conversation and often quoted fellow artist Waldo Sexton: “I’d rather be a liar than a bore”.

Hibiscus Flowers

Still wondering about a Florida landscape painting in your family collection? Contact us…it could be by Albert Backus.