Where Florida Art Began
Other than the early 20th century vacationing artists such as Winslow Homer or the Hudson River School icon Herman Herzog, Albert Ernest Backus – a Florida native – was the first artist to truly see the subtle beauty of Florida and to attempt to capture it on canvas. Backus, who was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame in 1993, was the seminal Florida landscape painter. All those who followed were in someway trying to emulate his work.
As Grant Wood’s American Gothic did for Iowa and Winslow Homer’s landscapes did for New England, so Albert Ernest Backus has done for his native state of Florida.
Like other great 20th Century American landscape painters, Backus encouraged us to inhabit his world and to appreciate it through his eyes.
Born in 1906 in Fort Pierce, Florida, Backus was encouraged from a very early age by his parents to become involved with the arts. At six years of age, Backus was given a set of watercolors by his mother and was thus introduced to the world of painting. He spent his childhood sketching and painting the environment around his home.
In 1924, Backus left home to attend Parsons School of Design and Art in New York City. The lessons he received in New York were the only formal art training Backus ever had.
Upon his return to Fort Pierce, Backus kept busy by painting murals in restaurants, backdrops for local theaters, and views of land developments for real estate speculators. The local land boom eventually lost momentum and the artist quickly lost his source of income.
Convinced that he still wanted to lead an artist’s life, Backus held his first exhibition in 1931, sponsored by local patron Dorothy Binney Palmer. He continued to show his work and sell paintings at regional art shows for $5 and $10 per painting. Acknowledgment was slow at first, but steadily grew. Then in 1938, the Florida Federation of Arts bestowed upon Backus the coveted “Bemis” award. Backus had officially stepped into the light of national recognition.
Spanish Bayonets on the Indian River by A.E. Backus
Moon Light Everglades by A.E. Backus
Beach House at Punta Rassa by A.E. Backus
From the 1930s through the 1950s, much of Backus’ work was impressionistic. Monet had been one of his early influences, and the French artist’s use of color was adapted on Backus’ early Florida canvases.
Paintings from this period are characterized by Backus’ heavy use of the palette knife. His sweeping gestures with the knife and his preference for painting storm scenes brought a sense of unbridled vigor to this work.
In the last 30 years of Backus’ life his landscapes became more representational, and he employed the brush far more often than the knife.
The backwoods paintings done at this time were often more serene and detailed than his earlier works.
Backus’ success at capturing Florida’s rugged beauty came as much from his scientific inquiries as from his artistic ability. He spent a lifetime studying plants, wildlife and meteorology.
There was hardly a cloud formation, Florida plant or animal species that Backus could not name. Even in his 80s, he could be seen around Fort Pierce studying and sketching the nuances the light of sunrise could have on a favorite jacaranda tree or sabal palm cluster. His favorite times of day were late afternoon or early morning, because the light is more alive then. Backus mastered light: the handling of light, the effect of light on the color of an object, and how light differs from day-to-day, season-to-season, place-to-place.
The A.E. Backus Museum
The A.E. Backus Museum in Fort Pierce is a repository for many of Backus’ paintings and personal effects – and an educational and inspirational resource for artists.
Though Backus was a driving force behind the creation of the museum, he asked that it be known simply as the Gallery of Fort Pierce. It was only in the days after Backus’ death that the museum’s board of directors renamed the facility as a memorial tribute. The museum and the people who support it are testaments to the continuity of his artistic spirit.
The A.E. Backus Museum is public visual arts facility open five days a week from October through June (summer hours by appointment). The museum features the nation’s largest display of original paintings by Albert Ernest Backus. Four additional exhibition wings feature changing exhibits of artwork by contemporary Florida artists.
Located in historic downtown Fort Pierce, a mere 2 blocks from Backus’ longtime home and studio and adjacent to the location of his original studio, the museum is a worthwhile stop on any visitor’s itinerary. The museum’s ample free parking provides convenient access to other area attractions, casual waterside dining and boutique shopping. The A.E. Backus Museum is located at 500 N. Indian River Drive in Fort Pierce, FL 34950. Phone 772-465-0630. Hours: October through June, Tuesday – Saturday 10 am. – 4 pm. Sundays Noon – 4 pm. Visit us online: A.E. Backus Museum