The terrain of unspoiled Florida was Albert Ernest “A. E.” Backus’s passion. When he was born in 1906, his birthplace, Fort Pierce, was surrounded by citrus groves; in the early 1920s it was transformed when an inlet was dredged to provide access for commercial and sports fishing. His family ran a boatyard, which Backus, known as “Bean” or “Beanie,” used as a studio. Fort Pierce was named after the Army post built in 1838 during the Second Seminole War, and the city continued to expand throughout the twentieth century. Showing an early interest in art, “Bean” practiced with watercolors and learned about oil-based paints at his father’s boat shop.

Although Backus is often described as self-taught, claiming he “learned by doing,” he gained some education in art fundamentals during two summer sessions at the Parsons School of Design in New York in 1924 and 1925. Explaining his modest training, Backus commented: “If you go to art museums you can see how other people did certain things and try to analyze why they did it. It’s faster if you have lessons and take advantage of someone else’s experience. The only reason I didn’t get more schooling was because it was economically impossible.” For a time he did commercial work, producing signs and billboards, and became the artist-in-residence for the Sunrise Theater, a performing arts venue. In 1931 he enjoyed the patronage of Dorothy Binney Palmer, giving Backus his first show. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he joined the United States Navy and served as quartermaster, second class aboard the troop transport USS Hermitage (AP-54) where during his time, the ship’s commander encouraged his painting. His horizons increased extensively with ports-of-call in Europe, Central America, Australia, and New Zealand.

At the conclusion of World War II, Backus returned home and renovated the old boatyard, which became his base until 1960. His work from this phase reflected his attempts to capture the light of Florida, rendered with heavy impasto which he applied with a palette knife. His discovery of this technique was somewhat serendipitous: “What happened was that I had one of these regular old [flat] painting knives that you use to scrape with, and I thought, well, I’m just going to whack this paint in with this thing… Several years after that, they started making painting knives because there were other people, I guess, who had the same idea. With me it was just an accident. I used the palette knife exclusively for a while.”

After his wife’s death in 1955, Backus began to spend time in Jamaica, enjoying its lush vegetation and slower pace, claiming “I moved to Jamaica for the rum, the painting was secondary.” In his Jamaica paintings he used more complementary colors and included more figures than in his earlier Florida work. Selling his first Fort Pierce studio to a power plant, he purchased a home nearby, known as the New Studio, and hired a studio manager. Still interested in capturing the Florida light, Backus shifted his style to incorporate more detail, smoother surfaces, and quiet inland scenes. Known for treating people with respect, Backus also mentored young students, hosted parties, and gave back to his community. He opened his studio to clients, numerous friends, and students, many of whom became known as the Indian River School. In the mid-1950s he welcomed and mentored Alfred Hair, an aspiring black artist who in turn organized other African American artists, becoming known as the Florida Highwaymen. Traveling up and down the coast they sold their colorful canvases, many based on Backus’s work, from the trunks of their cars. In 2004, twenty-five Florida Highwaymen were recognized by the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. In 1993, Backus was posthumously awarded this same honor.  

Backus had his own accolades; he was frequently referred to as “Florida’s painter laureate,” and by 1968 he was declared the “Dean of Florida’s landscape painters.” Eight years later he was called a “state treasure,” followed in 1979 when Governor Bob Graham announced that Backus was the best-known representational artist in the state. The next year Florida Atlantic University presented him with an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. In typical fashion, Backus commented: “It’s kind of funny for someone who never graduated from high school.” Backus’s lasting legacy is the A.E. Backus Museum & Gallery (originally the Fort Pierce Art Gallery), which he established in 1960 to showcase and sell his work, along with the Highwaymen and members of the Indian River School.