Albert Ernest “Beanie” Backus (1906–1990) was a true character, a man whose art and life were American originals. Famous for his vivid Florida landscapes capturing a fast-vanishing Florida wild lands in pre-WW2 Florida, he was equally famous for his generosity, his eccentricity, his teaching skill and his prodigious and diverse artistic output, spanning nearly 70 years. Backus would come to be seen as the seminal Florida landscape painter, and others who followed emulated him.
Beanie was self-taught, and his style changed and became more refined as he painted. He did stints in the early 1920s studying at Parsons, but he returned to Florida to make his living as an artist – something he managed to do all his life. He began by painting commercial signs and billboards, later theater marquees, and finally, landscapes. His early worked includes what some would call “kitsch” – predictable tropical flowers and birds, but soon he began painting the beaches, rivers and vistas of the Florida coastlines and waterways, especially in the Indian River and Everglades areas of Florida. Beanie was a lifelong student of botany, zoology, and meteorology, and these informed his art as much as his artistic vision did. While his early works were impressionistic, his later works were vividly representational – the result of years of scientific study rendered artistically in lush yet precise detail.
Beanie did not limit his subjects to Florida. In WWII he used his stint in the Navy to create visual journals of his wartime travels in the South Pacific, California and Europe. His later travels to the Caribbean resulted in extensive paintings of the many islands he visited – the Bahamas, Haiti, and Jamaica, among others. Over the course of these travels and his life’s work, his style would also change, from a heavy reliance on the palette knife – giving strong texture and contrast – to the more refined use of brush stroke, yielding more romantic and detailed paintings.
Backus married late in life, and his wife died just four years into their marriage. While he never had children of his own, he was well known for mentoring countless numbers of talented young artists and for helping what came to be known as “Backus Brats” – a few hundred children who, as an artist and philanthropist, Backus would help through high school, college, and life and with whom Backus would have a strong relationships throughout his lifetime.
Beanie was known for throwing fabulous and fun parties – always inter-generational and interracial even in the segregationist era – that served as a showcase for the creative talents of the latest crop of “Backus Brats.” His generosity, acceptance of others, and personal simplicity were widely recognized and appreciated. In some respects while his enduring legacy is his art, his most treasured legacy is his humanitarianism.