A.E. “Beanie” Backus was not a Highwayman. Yet, his profound influence on several of the Highwaymen, in particular Alfred Hair and Harold Newton, can be credited with having launched this unusual enterprise of art and salesmanship.
Born January 3, 1906, Backus was decades older than the Highwaymen and had already established himself as one of the region’s preeminent artists by the time they met. As a young child growing up along the banks of the Indian River in Fort Pierce, Florida, he observed with a keen eye the natural world around him. His lifelong interest in plants, meteorology and wildlife transferred to his canvases as he sought to accurately portray Florida's exotic beauty.
In his early work from the 1930s through 1950s, Backus shows the influences of one his favorite artists, French Impressionist Claude Monet. Using the sweeping gesture of the palette knife, Backus’s paintings are scenes of movement and vigor, such as wind-blown palms and white-capped oceans.
Later in life, he used the paintbrush predominately. His paintings became more serene and detailed as he sought to document the scenes of a quickly vanishing landscape, as shown in many of his paintings of the Florida backwoods.
Backus’s work was appreciated for its ability to capture the nuances of light in the Florida landscape from the way the sun shown through the branches of a Live Oak tree to the glow of the ocean at sunrise. As the dean of Florida landscape painting, his work had great commercial appeal. There was a long waiting list to purchase a Backus painting was the African-American artists were more than willing to satisfy the market with their own versions of Backus’s landscapes.
Although race divided them, Backus served as an encouraging presence to many of the Highwaymen. For Alfred Hair, he was both friend and mentor, a role he played in the lives of scores of hopeful artists who sought not only his painting expertise but the friendship of this quick-witted, amiable man.
Regarded as a humanitarian who lived modestly but gave generously to his friends, Backus continued to paint until heart disease left him too weak to hold a paintbrush. He died on June 6, 1990.