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A.E. "Bean" Backus

Albert Ernest Backus (1906-1990) was a largely self-taught artist from Fort Pierce, Florida who created iconic images of the timeless beauty of the Florida landscape. Whether in the glades, the beaches, the rivers, the savannas, or the back country, his paintings capture a unique sense of place that is instantly recognizable and beloved. Praised and renowned as an exceptional artist in the regionalist tradition, he was also a mentor and advocate for countless people in his lifetime, and is remembered today both for his artistic accomplishments, his altruistic spirit, and in sharing the arts with his community.
EARLY YEARS 1920s - 1930s

From an early age, Backus showed an interest in art. As a teenager, Backus began harnessing his early love for the landscape toward a possible future as an artist. With financial help from Reginald L. Goodwin (“Uncle Reg," who insisted that he "pass it on" rather than be paid back), he spent the summer of 1924 attending the New York School of Fine and Applied Art (now Parsons School of Design). He studied commercial art to refine skills he thought would be more useful than fine art back home. He went back for summer classes in 1925, but with Florida's faltering economy preceding the Great Depression, any hopes for continued formal training were set aside for more practical concerns.

Returning to Fort Pierce, he opened a commercial art business with his brother, and in 1930 also became the resident artist for Sunrise Theatre. There, he created marketing materials for the films with inexpensive supplies such as poster paint and Upson board. Backus was also painting landscapes on the side, and was starting to get noticed.

Dorothy Binney (1888-1982), daughter of Crayola crayon inventor Edwin Binney, recognized something special in this young artist and gave him his first art showing in 1931. Her patronage was the encouragement he needed to believe in himself and find the resolve to steadily improve.

By the late 1930s, he was becoming more skilled and confident, entering statewide competitions and winning prestigious awards. “Bean” Backus was beginning to establish himself as a serious artist.

THE WAR YEARS 1942-1945
  
On January 1, 1942, Backus enlisted in the U.S. Navy, three and a half weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor and only two days before his 36th birthday.

His posting throughout the war was as a quartermaster, second class aboard the troop transport U.S.S. Hermitage AP-54. With the encouragement of the ship’s commander, he was able to get art materials and paint in many of the ports to which their duty called them.

Backus visited far-flung and exotic locales during the war, including Casablanca, Le Havre, Marseille, Southampton, Belfast; Panama City and ports in the Canal Zone; Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney in Australia, as well as Wellington, New Zealand; Bombay (Mumbai), Honolulu, Pago Pago (now American Samoa), and Bora Bora (in French Polynesia), painting in watercolor and oils wherever possible.

His eye was constantly seeking and absorbing the world around him.

THE OLD STUDIO YEARS 1946-1960
  
Returning from the war, Backus was intent upon continuing his artistic pursuits. Fueled by his keen observation and new worldly experiences, he immediately picked up where he left off.

With the proceeds from the sales of his paintings during the war years, he was able to purchase property in Fort Pierce, converting his family’s former boat works on Moore’s Creek into an eclectic home and first studio. Backus was working to develop a statewide clientele, and fashioned a Bohemian-styled hangout where all were welcome. 

People from all walks of life were attracted to this enclave of hospitality, conversation, friendly debate, music, and of course, art. Backus was known to host parties with live jazz music, and even began to offer art lessons to children on Saturdays.

During this productive period, the artist perfected an energetic, colorful painting style for his landscapes that captured the effects of the Florida light with thickly applied paint, often expertly using a palette knife more than a brush.

In 1950, Backus married Patricia Hutchinson (1926-1955), who became an important balance in his life and fixture in his studio. As his career began to flourish, Patsy provided the kind of structure and management he needed to entertain clients, attend to guests, and help her husband make productive use of his creative time.

It was at the Old Studio that Backus had his first contacts with Harold Newton (1934-1994) and Alfred Hair (1941-1970), the future Highwaymen artists to whom he provided guidance and assistance.

JAMAICA & THE CARIBBEAN - "A SPIRITUAL HOME" - 1950s-1980s
  
In a bid to escape his pain following the death of his wife, Backus resumed his voyages to the Caribbean. In 1956 he visited Jamaica, and was captivated by the lush vegetation, varied topography, and deep tropical colors the enchanted island offered. Purchasing land near Priestman’s River, he built a studio retreat in 1958 that became a creative sanctuary for him, a place to relax and recharge his spirit.

The landscape of Jamaica challenged and delighted his eye. The rich, verdant greens tasked him to counterbalance his palette with complementary warmer hues, and his compositions often feature more people than his solitary Florida scenes.

Over the years, he would spend many summers here, and many in his circle of friends and artists would visit for an island getaway and the trademark Backus hospitality.

Always quick with a joke, Backus once said, “Jamaica is an opportunity to look at one’s self from the outside. You come here to forget your problems. I came here to drink rum — I just paint on the side.”

THE NEW STUDIO YEARS 1960-1990
  
With progress and growth in mind, Backus sold the Old Studio land to accommodate the city’s new electric power plant to be built at Moore’s Creek. He made certain in purchasing the old Platts house at 122 Avenue C that the “New Studio” would be only a short walk from the site of his former home, so as not to lose any returning clients.

But in comparison to the Old Studio, here the atmosphere was more settled and established, as was befitting an artist of greater stature with a client base of more serious collectors. He could now prioritize having a studio manager and others to assist him, first Paul Abstein (1952-2004) and then Don D. Brown (b.1947),  who provided an important stability which allowed his creative output to thrive.

It was a new start, but many of the successful qualities were still in place. He continued to practice his open door policy, and to be known for treating people with equality and respect. He frequently hosted parties, mentored younger artists, offered art lessons, and gave back to the community.

In his mature years, Backus landscape subjects expanded to include more scenes of savannas, glades, rivers, and the back country of rural Florida. His style shifted as well, and his work became more reflective and more detail-oriented. He was focusing on his brushwork more, creating smoother and more refined surfaces, and his market continued to respond with reverence and enthusiasm.

During these years he was referred to as “Florida’s painter laureate,” and by 1968 was declared the “Dean of Florida’s landscape painters.” In 1976 he was called a “state treasure,” and was recognized in 1979 by Governor Bob Graham as the “best-known representational artist in the state” at a ceremony in Tallahassee. In 1980, Florida Atlantic University conferred an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters – a crowning honor for the self-taught artist.

Backus suffered a series of heart attacks in his latter years, succumbing to the last one in 1990. Despite his failing health, he continued painting up until his final days.

LEGACY
  
The artist who embodied the advice to “pass it on” is remembered today both for his artistic accomplishments and his humanitarian spirit.

Back in the 1800s and in the early 1900s, there were notable artists from the north who would paint the Florida landscape in their brief visits to a wild and beautiful region. But Backus was the first Florida-born artist to build his professional renown by painting the landscape and scenes from daily life with the experienced eye and intimate knowledge of a native. 

Backus is fondly recalled as a mentor and advocate to countless individuals, credited with freely conveying moral, intellectual, artistic, and financial support to those in need. Recognized as a figure respected on both sides of a painful racial divide, he was one of the community leaders appointed to Fort Pierce’s first Bi-Racial Commission in the 1960s.

During his lifetime, Backus was well known for prioritizing painting requests for local charities to use as fundraisers, typically doing live demonstrations to generate interest. And he was one of the founders and first Art Director of the original Fort Pierce Art Gallery (renamed the A.E. Backus Museum & Gallery after his death).

Artists who became associated with him and influenced by his style are often referred to as part of the Indian River School, and Backus was instrumental in encouraging the young African American artists who later became known as the Highwaymen. Twenty-eight artists in the Florida Artists Hall of Fame can trace their beginnings to his studio door, and Backus himself was posthumously given this honor in 1993.

Today the original Platts-Backus House or New Studio has been restored as the headquarters of Main Street Fort Pierce, with the street renamed A.E. Backus Avenue in honor of Fort Pierce’s famous native son.  

   

   
   

   

   

   
SELECT RESOURCES

A. E. "Bean " Backus - Florida Artists Hall of Fame
https://dos.myflorida.com/cultural/programs/florida-artists-hall-of-fame/a-e-bean-backus/

Kuzmanovic, Natasha. “Painting with Light.” St. Petersburg, FL: FORUM Magazine, a publication of the Florida Humanities Council, 2017. https://issuu.com/floridahumanities/docs/vol_no_41_no_2_fall_2017

Kuzmanovic, Natasha. Tropical Light: The Art of A.E. Backus. New York: Vendome Press, 2016.

Peterson, Olive Dame. A. E. Backus. Orlando, FL: Fidelity Press, 2003.

Peterson, Olive Dame. A.E. Backus: Florida Artist. Fort Pierce, FL: The Gallery of Fort Pierce, 1984.

Russo, Kathleen, Sherrie Johnson, Michael Sitaras, and Jackie Brice. A. E. “Bean"
Backus: The Backus School.
Stuart, FL: The Martin County Council for the Arts, 2000.
HOURS & ADDRESS 
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500 North Indian River Drive
Historic Downtown
Fort Pierce, Florida 34950
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