A. E. "Beanie" Backus
Florida's Landscape Master
1906 - 1990
Albert Earnest Backus was born in Fort Pierce, Florida in 1906, two years after his parents moved from New Jersey to the small and sparsely populated town along the south east coast of Florida. Just after the turn of the century the local economy was based on fishing and agriculture. The beaches, rivers and backwoods hammocks were of remarkable beauty. This is much of what we see in Backus’ paintings: the unspoiled tropical landscapes and scenic countryside that would later be lost to development.
At an early age, “Bean” as he was called by his family, and “Beanie” to friends, had an affinity towards art. First working with watercolors; painting small pictures of local points of interest and portraits of friends, he soon began to paint backdrops and signs of coming attractions for a local Fort Pierce theater. Requests for more pictures followed.
In 1924 Beanie was enrolled in summer courses at The Parsons School of Design in New York City. His uncle paid his tuition and expenses that summer. Beanie was able to pay his own way for a second summer. He earned money painting at the theater and other local jobs. The two summers in New York constituted Beanie’s only formal art training.
In the early l930’s while America was in the grips of the Great Depression, Beanie was encouraged by teachers, family and friends to have a one-man show. To his astonishment, he was an immediate success. He could not believe that people were willing to pay for his paintings during such hard times. Modesty was a Backus trademark. He continued to paint and sell his work, as well as working in local businesses to supplement his income.
In 1938 and 1939 Beanie won the Florida Federation of Art Award for the best painting of a Florida Subject. He won seven of these awards during his lifetime. As a result of the 1938 honor, Beanie was invited to have a one-man show at the Miami Women's Club.
By l939 Backus received his first 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 and Backus’ work, “The Beach at Eden” not only won the Florida State competition but also won third prize at the national exposition. Backus was on his way to becoming a recognized professional artist.
The war years interrupted his budding career. In l942 Beanie enlisted in the U. S. Navy. While on ship he painted and sketched as much as possible. With the war over in l945 he returned home and concentrated on his art. His paintings of the Southeast Florida backwoods during the post war years are particularly dynamic. His use of light and sky coupled with his “palette knife” technique gave the viewer a wonderfully new perspective of the land at a time when development was beginning to encroach on the area.
Through the late l940’s Backus began to receive commission work in addition to selling his finished paintings from his studio. He was still considered to be a regional painter, and aside from winter visitors to Fort Pierce, few outside of that area knew much about him. All that changed in 1952 when he was invited to show at Fairchild Gardens in Miami. Miamians loved his lush tropical paintings featuring native trees like the Royal Poinciana tree, coconut palms, backwoods pines and glades hammocks.
In l95l Backus fell in love and married a younger woman, his beloved Patsy. A few years later, tragedy struck as his wife died after a routine surgery. The great loss drove Beanie into a deep depression. Friends urged him to take a break and travel. Heeding their advice he left for the Caribbean. While visiting Jamaica he decided to set up a studio near Port Antonio, where he painted with renewed vigor. He maintained a home there for many years, although the changing political climate caused interruptions in his visits.
Collectors of Backus paintings have noticed that most of his Jamaican pictures show local people in everyday activities, while few of his Florida scenes do. And the foliage in Jamaica makes up a large part of the canvas, while the sky is often most prominent in his Florida art. His explanation was simply that the tropical growth in Jamaica is what you see, and there are people everywhere; in Florida, the open spaces and sky, with occasional birds or other wildlife is what he wants us to remember.
Following his success at the Fairchild Gardens show, there were others over the years. Beanie’s work became so popular and commissions so plentiful, he found it difficult to build sufficient inventory for exhibitions. He did have the first ever one-man show at the Miami Herald Building in l963 and an exhibition at the Flagler Museum in Palm Beach in l968. Boca Raton banker Tom Fleming, a fan of Backus, purchased 50 works from a collector for a reported $50,000 in l968, and sent an exhibition to the Miami Herald and to the Jacksonville Times Union Building in Jacksonville in l969. Mention has also been made of an exhibition at the Bacardi Building in Miami.
During the l960’s as his popularity grew, Backus began to move away from his palette knife style, using more brushwork, although many paintings show both, and his popularity continued to grow. Beanie’s trademark “sky” remains unmistakable. Commissions were at an all time high in the l970’s and l980’s.
Throughout his career, Backus helped other young artists. To some, he gave art lessons, to others, advice. Beanie was mentor to “ The Highwaymen,” a group of local artists given that label from their practice of selling their paintings up and down Florida’s highways from their cars. Some of the “Highwaymen’s” art reflects the influence of Backus, although others heeded his advice to develop their individual style.
In l990 at the age of 84, after a lifetime of painting Florida, Backus passed away in his native Fort Pierce. His artistic legacy will live on forever.
Upon his death, a Miami Herald editorial said; “Mr. Backus painted Florida the way Marjorie Stoneman Douglas and Marjorie Kennan Rawlings write about it - encapsulating, preserving its essence.”
Backus was avidly collected by many of Florida‘s most prominent citizens and corporate leaders. Among the notable collections on public view are the Fleming Collection which was donated to Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, SunTrust Bank in Fort Pierce, and at the Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in Miami. His paintings also hang in the Governor’s Office in Tallahassee and in Congressional offices in Washington, D. C.
In November, l997, an exhibition of Backus paintings was held at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee. Sponsored by the Florida Department of State, the show honored Albert Edward Backus in recognition of his induction into the Florida Artist Hall of Fame.
Beanie’s studio in Fort Pierce has been turned into a first-rate museum and gallery. The museum holds festivals to celebrate his work but also dedicates part of the year to showing new local artists, something Backus would be very satisfied with. There have been several books written about Backus and his work has never been more valuable.
I had the honor of meeting Beanie several times when I was young; his enthusiasm for art, jazz, food and life in general had a profound affect on me. Whenever my Dad and I would drive up to Fort Pierce to visit family we would always make sure to stop by Bean’s. My passion for art all stems from those first visits. It’s still the favorite part of my job, driving around Florida looking for artists and visiting them at work. There is something about an artist's studio; it’s a magical place of creation. And Beanie’s studio was the best, like the man himself. Beanie painted his entire life selling every painting he ever produced. In fact he died with a painting only half finished on his easel and a three-year waiting list for his work.
The information contained in this bio is from my recollection and from a variety of publications, books, art guides and newspaper articles as well as discussions with artists, collectors and others who knew Bennie. Any errors or omissions are unintended. GL