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Albert Ernest Backus

A.E. Backus
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Albert Ernest Backus

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Albert Ernest (Beanie) Backus (1906-1990) is known as a painter of the Florida landscape. The subject painting is of the brilliantly colored Royal Poinciana trees that were among his favored subjects. A.E. Backus was largely self-taught. Working in an impressionist style he became a master of the palette knife technique, employing heavy impasto and strong colors in atmospheric landscapes from the 1930s-1950s. Later paintings were more representational and employed brush work to a far greater extent. Albert Backus also established a studio in Jamaica, where he frequently visited to paint the Caribbean landscape beginning in 1956.

Backus was first recognized for his still life paintings of hibiscus, and later for his landscapes and figural work. Sometimes he is classified as a folk artist because he was self-taught, but his masterful technique is anything but primitive or naive. Others refer to him as the “Dean of Florida Painters.” Backus was a strong advocate for racial tolerance and equal rights, and he was a mentor to the Highwaymen, a group of African American artists, mostly employed in the citrus groves and packing houses with little hope of a better life. They were called the Highwaymen because they sold paintings by the roadside out of the back of their cars.

Backus was born in Fort Pierce, Florida, and spent most of his life there. His studio in Fort Pierce is a Museum dedicated to his work and life. A larger than life figure, he was the center of an eclectic community that assembled around him.

Charles Lelly, a Unitarian minister, wrote of Backus in 1969: “Here is a man who gives of himself, of his time, and of his love. He gives to the rich, to the poor, and to the in-between. He takes in the destitute or homeless and takes care of their needs until they are able to stand alone. He never knows whether another man is white, black, yellow or red. He only knows that man is a person. He has the courage to be firm when necessary, yet is always tender…understands and loves, but rarely passes judgment…puts himself last and everyone else ahead.”

Albert Backus was an avid student of nature. He studied plants, wildlife, and meteorology. His paintings preserve the vanishing beauty of the Florida landscape, continuing the tradition of the 19th century Florida landscape artists, Winslow Homer, Hermann Herzog, Alexander Wyant, and Martin Johnson Heade.