Albert E. Backus: Florida Landscape Artist
by: Glenn Firestone
Albert Edward Backus was born in 1906. Two years prior to his birth, Backus' parents moved from New Jersey to the small and sparsely populated town of Fort Pierce, Florida. At the turn of the century, the Fort Pierce economy was strictly based on fishing and agriculture. This, in itself, is much of what we see in Backus' paintings: the unspoiled tropical landscapes and scenic countryside settings that would later be defiled by over development. At an early age, "Beanie" (as he was affectionately called by his family) had an affinity towards art. During his early years, Backus worked with watercolors, painting small pictures of scenic points of interest, portraits of friends and basically anything that would amuse the local townsfolk. His first major painting job was to paint backdrops in a local Fort Pierce theatre. Other commissions followed; however, the money he received was never much until he was encouraged to leave high school to help support his family. In 1931, America was in the grips of the depression. During this period, "Beanie" was encouraged by teachers, family and friends to have a one man show. To his astonishment, he was an immediate success. He later remarked, "I couldn't believe that people were willing to pay me $10 for a painting what with us having such a bad economy and all!" Modesty was almost always a Backus trademark.
During the depression, Backus continued to paint as well as work at many local businesses to supplement his artist livelihood. Finally in 1939, Backus first received national recognition. IBM, in association with the Golden Gate Exposition, sponsored an Art across the nation exhibit. Artists from the then 48 states were encouraged to enter, in their particular state, their finest work. Backus' work And Then There Was Light not only won the Florida State competition but also gained recognition at the national exposition. At this point, Backus knew he was destined to become a professional artist. In 1942, Backus enlisted in the navy and while on ship, painted and sketched as much as possible. Illness confined him to navy hospitals and for this reason, he was later discharged in 1945. With the war over, Backus concentrated on his life's work. His paintings of the Florida Everglades during the post war years are particulary dynamic. His use of light and sky coupled with his "palette knife'' technique gave the viewer a wonderfully new perspective of the land he had grown to love. Backus began to receive commission work; most significantly, a winter visitor by the name of Arthur De Yo ordered many works by the artist. Backus was still considered to be a regionalist painter. Aside from the occasional winter resident visiting his Fort Pierce studio, few outside of this particular area knew of him and of course, he realized this. In 1949, Backus decided he was ready to travel to Miami to exhibit his work. He was an immediate success.
Miamians loved his lush tropical paintings featuring native flowering trees like the royal poinciana, coconut palms swaying in the warm South Florida winds, as well as his Everglades paintings featuring the omnipresent cattle egrets.
In 1951, Backus fell in love and married a younger woman, his beloved Patsy. A few years later, tragedy struck as his wife died in the middle of open heart surgery. Backus was devastated. Although only a moderate drinker up to this point in his life, the loss of his wife drove him into a deep depression and gave him reason to increase his alcohol consumption. His commission work continued although his artistic style changed dramatically. Friends urged him to take a break and travel. Backus heeded their advice and left for the Caribbean. In 1957, he visited Jamaica and fell in love with its sheer natural beauty. Setting up a studio in the town of Port Antonio, Backus painted with the same renewed vigor that was displayed in his works painted prior to his wife's untimely death. Backus remained in Jamaica for several years until the worsened political situation forced him to return to Fort Pierce. After 1962, the demands for Backus' paintings increased to the extent that he had to abandon his palette knife style of painting. Although much of the volume of his work was brush style, the quality of his work did not diminish. His trademark "sky" was unmistakable. Commissions were at an all time high in the 1970's despite the fact that Backus' eyesight began to fail. In 1991, the effects of hard drinking finally took Backus' life. His artistic legacy will live on forever. Presently, his works can be found in the LBJ Texas library and the Georgia State Supreme Court. Although many notable artists have painted in Florida, Backus is one of the only artists who spent most of his life portraying its natural beauty that we, the people of Florida, are eternally grateful for.
Glenn Firestone is a private art dealer in Miami, Florida, and is actively seeking works by A.E. Backus.
ŠThe Fine Arts Trader 2009