Albert Ernest “Bean” Backus
Albert Ernest “Bean” Backus was a talented and committed Florida landscape painter who taught dozens of individuals to paint, including a few young black men who were welcomed into his studio. He is remembered for his now nostalgic paintings of Florida and Jamaica and the mentorship he gave to many of the Highwaymen, most notably Alfred Hair. His generosity and quiet actions across color lines is legendary. In 1984, he was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.
Bean Backus was born on January 3, 1906 in a pine and cypress house that his father built on the banks of the Indian River. Situated just outside Fort Pierce, it was a far different place than it is today. Bean was the fourth child and the only one in the family to be born in Florida. Called “Beanpot” by a family friend, the nickname stuck in the shortened version of “Bean” or “Beanie.” He and his sister Laura (nicknamed “Titter”) spent much of their youth playing on the Indian River.
His family came from New Jersey in 1899 and settled permanently in Florida a year later. They divorced when Bean was four. His father, George Tay Backus, went to work for a boat builder and lived in a small house nearby at the eastern end of Avenue C. In time, he purchased the shop on Moore’s Creek along with his brother Reg. Bean helped his father at the shop beginning at age eleven. George eventually left Backus Boat Shop to his son Tod.
Bean’s mother, Josephine Sheridan Backus, ran the family pineapple business, which was what initially drew the couple to Fort Pierce. It failed shortly after World War I due to disease, drought, and competition from Cuba.
Both Bean’s parents came from families who had been in show business. His father had an uncle who was a member of the well-regarded New York City vaudeville team of Backus, Birch, and Wombal. George also had musical talent. Josephine’s father found success in vaudeville as a song-and-dance man. As a result of these influences, there was always music playing in Bean’s family home. Josephine knew how to play the guitar and she loved acting, writing, and making costumes. She also owned one of the first phonographs in the area, which drew people to her house for gatherings.
Visitors, including blacks and Seminoles, never needed an invitation to visit, and were often invited to stay for supper. It seemed normal for Bean to become best friends with the son of one of the Bahamian pineapple workers on the family farm. Josephine had a huge effect on Bean as his studio atmosphere echoed her home as a kind of community space filled with music, food, and stimulating conversation.
Bean showed an early interest in art. Due to a difficult birth, he was a sickly child and was always drawing when he had to rest. His mother gave him a watercolor set when he was five and he painted everything he saw. When he was older, a fifth-grade friend gave him
a box of oil paints that (he was told but didn’t fully believe) had been left at his father’s hotel by a visitor. By that time he had already learned about oil based paints at the
boat shop. He also took art lessons from Nancy Northrup Miller, a young artist from
Backus was close to his uncle Reg who, like his parents, was supportive of Bean’s artistic interests. While in high school, Bean spent two summers studying at Parson’s School
of Design in New York City; his Uncle Reg paid for the first session. There he was introduced to abstraction, a style he might have adapted as his own had he stayed connected to the New York art scene. Bean never graduated from high school due to
the Depression and his need to make money.
Interested in making art
for a living, he began by painting shop murals and creating restaurant signs. He made posters for various businesses including the local movie house, the Sunrise Theatre. He painted landscapes that were placed in the window of Swan’s Store on Avenue A during Christmastime; they sold for one dollar each. He even painted fabrics for a local dressmaker and depicted some aerial scenes for real estate developments. Because it was cheap, he made his posters on Upson board, an inexpensive building material that would later be used by the Highwaymen for their paintings. Bean’s artwork moved to canvas on stretchers years later when he was able to afford it.
In 1938 he opened a studio in the downtown Arcade Building with poet and artist friend Don Blanding. Don wrote a column for the Fort Pierce New Tribune in which he often praised Backus’s talent. By this time, Bean was winning awards for his art and his reputation was growing.
Backus joined the Navy when World War II broke out. He was encouraged to paint during this time by his ship’s captain who enjoyed painting and sculpting himself. He learned about Impressionism during his travels, and when he returned home, like the Impressionists, he began painting outdoors.
After the war, Bean purchased his father’s old boat shop and made it into a studio. He worked in this space from 1946-1959. Alfred Hair and his friends visited Bean in this studio, which he had to sell after the local power company demanded the space.
Backus was generally awake by 4:30 a.m. He enjoyed drinking coke and Bacardi throughout most of the day. Painting outside during the early morning and late afternoon hours, he paid special attention to color and light. In later years, he painted inside but his colors were still drawn from nature; by then they were etched in his memory.
Bean married Patsy Hutchinson in 1950; he was 44 and she was 24. The marriage was a good one but it didn’t last long as Patsy died in 1955 after having a heart operation. Her death was traumatic and Bean never stopped grieving. Always a heavy drinker, once Patsy died, his drinking got worse.
Heartbroken and alone, he went on a Caribbean cruise and became captivated with Jamaica. Soon after, he bought some land on Priestman’s River, about ten miles east of Port Antonio. He built a studio and a modest living space and traveled there often to paint, although he joked that the real reason he went to Jamaica was to drink the rum. Legend has it that Alfred Hair journeyed with him several times, although his wife Doretha reports that he only accompanied him once.
In the 1960s and 70s, Backus lived in an 1896 white clapboard house on the corner of Avenue C and Second Street, a few blocks from Avenue D where the Highwaymen lived and painted. It was just across the railroad tracks and near the banks of Moore’s Creek. The house had originally been built for Dr. Platts, the first doctor in Fort Pierce. During the day, Backus left the door to his studio open to in order to catch a breeze. He worked in a long room with a fireplace in the center; his paintings hung on the walls. There was a huge coffee table and many comfortable places for visitors to sit. Always frugal, he drove an old car and shunned air-conditioning. Extra money was either given away or used for travel to Jamaica.
Bean loved jazz, especially Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, which was often playing on the record player in his studio. Art books and literature were abundant along with magazines such as The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, which he often loaned or gave to students and friends. Anyone who came to his studio was welcomed in and offered food, drink, or artistic knowledge. As a vegetarian, his meals were meat free although fish, especially tuna, was acceptable. If someone needed a place to sleep, that could also be provided. Bean encouraged Alfred Hair’s associates, but he was especially friendly with Hair, and it seems that Alfred is the only student he formally taught. Painters like Harold Newton and Zanobia Jefferson, who sought him out for advice on their work, were gently critiqued. He would sometimes loan or gift a photograph of one of his paintings to his students as a way of teaching them about composition or some other aspect of painting that he thought might be helpful.
His friendships were many. They included notable writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Ian Fleming, and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas. Jane Reno, a Miami News columnist and mother of the U.S. Attorney General, Janet Reno, was also counted among his good friends. Most any discussion topic was possible in Bean’s space; they rarely got bitter
due to Bean’s wit and open-mindedness.
Bean’s approach to race was notable given the Jim Crow times in the South. He was
a trusting man who believed in social justice. Someone’s race or economic class was
of no concern to him except in how he could change the status quo. Catherine Enns, a Highwaymen biographer, claims that when Backus watched films at the Sunrise Theatre, he would purposely sit with the blacks in the segregated balcony, because he claimed
it was where he liked to sit. Meals at his house could easily involve a high-ranking politician sitting with a local person off the street looking for a meal.
He had many students of all ages during his lifetime, and charged them very little for
his tutoring. Sources vary on whether Alfred Hair ever paid for a lesson. Once the
public schools and community college started offering art classes, he stopped his formal teaching activities, thinking his services where no longer needed. But he never stopped mentoring or caring for his students.
Often called a self-taught artist because he had so little formal art training, Backus balked at this description. He pointed to all the art books and magazines he had and he noted all his visits to museums. He would have had further training but he didn’t have the money for it. This humble man, who never finished high school, received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
Bean Backus died at the age of 84 from heart failure. He was cremated, and his ashes were dropped from a plane onto the lavish landscape of Adams Ranch as a triple rainbow appeared. A few friends toasted him from the ground, drinking from his last bottle
Backus’s paintings are impressionist and regional in style. In the 1940s and 50s his work was characterized by a large buildup of paint which was achieved by using a palette knife. During these decades, he worked mostly en plein air (in the open air), an approached often attributed to the Impressionists but first made popular by Barbizon painter Charles-François Daubigny (1817-1878). This approach led Backus to paint what was seen, as opposed to what was felt.
Backus was also inspired by the Dutch painter Meinert Hobbema (1638-1709), who attended to the shifting light of the day as well as the movement of the seasons in his landscapes. He was drawn to the work of American artist George Inness (1825-1894), often called “the father of American landscape painting.” He often talked about Monet’s ability to create atmosphere in paint. Instead of being an inventor of a new style of painting, Backus was able to successfully emulate the styles of well-known landscape painters, most notably those from the nineteenth century.
He created an estimated 7,000 paintings during his lifetime. His customers included prominent local and state officials, cattle ranchers, businessmen, and art collectors. He became so popular that in later decades, he worked by commission only. A customer could easily wait months or possibly years for a painting. When someone commissioned
a work from Backus, they generally thumbed through his album of photos, selecting paintings they liked. A variety of scenes, compositions, and climatic elements were included making the customer’s job easy to describe.
Over the years, Backus began concentrating on light and atmosphere. While many artists attended to seascapes, he also recorded the rivers, salt marshes, and smaller waterways in Florida. He concentrated on two rivers throughout his life: The Indian River, a saltwater lagoon with many small islands and the Saint Lucie River, which was thick with vegetation during Bean’s lifetime. He carefully depicted a large variety of plants including live oaks, hammocks, palms, and gumbo-limbo trees, cabbage palms, red spiked airplants, Spanish moss, trumpet vines, and wild orchids. He once said, “I
paint for people who want things identified…. My pictures are representational but by no means photographic. If you try to put everything in a picture that you see in a scene, the picture becomes too detailed, too busy, uninteresting.”
Backus increasingly painted Jamaican scenes as Fort Pierce became more developed
with high-rise buildings and shopping malls disturbing the view of his beloved pristine landscapes. His Jamaica paintings had more figures in them, which were rare in his Florida scenes. As Backus claimed, this was because there were so many people living
He paid attention to the weather and the kinds of clouds and skies that occurred
during different times of the day. So careful was he to portray a scene correctly that he sometimes consulted with a meteorologist at a local weather station to make sure the clouds he depicted were correct for a particular kind of weather. So tuned into the weather and landscape was he that Catherine Enns claimed he was not only an artist,
but also a meteorologist and a botanist. Local people could easily identify the place
and the time of day in his paintings.
He began his landscapes by placing a thin layer of ultramarine blue paint on his canvas.
A darker blue was brushed on to create his preliminary drawing. He could finish a work in one sitting, often using a palette knife to record his scene. His frames were purchased wholesale.
Bean Backus never had much art training, perhaps giving him good reason to think that Alfred Hair and his many other students could also succeed as artists if they worked at it. He was democratic in his approach to life and art. The A. E. Backus Gallery and Museum on North Indian River Drive celebrates his life and work, and individuals who own his paintings count themselves lucky. Not only do they have stunning paintings from a very talented man, but they also have documents of a Florida that is difficult to experience today.