Standish Backus Jr. Biography

View Art by Standish Backus Jr.


Standish Backus (1910-1989) Born in Detroit in 1910, Standish Backus graduated form Princeton University in 1933 with a degree in architecture. He studied painting the following year at the University of Munich, and later took instruction with a watercolorist in Maine. After his return from Europe, he settled in Santa Barbara, California, and worked full-time as an artist, developing in the style of the California watercolorists who were receiving national acclaim in the 1930s.

After being commissioned as an Ensign in the inactive Naval Reserve in 1940, Standish Backus became an active duty officer in 1941. During most of the war he was assigned to the Net and Boom Defenses, first in the South Pacific and then in Washington D.C. In 1945 he was transferred to the Bureau of Naval Personnel to assist in establishing a special Graphic Presentation Unit. Late in the War Standish Backus was assigned to cover operations in the Pacific as a Combat Artist. Backus received promotions throughout the war, attaining the rank of Commander before returning to civilian life in May 1946.

Returning to active duty, Backus accompanied Admiral Byrd to the Antarctica for four months in 1955-56 to record images of the exploration. Labeled "Operation Deepfreeze", this expedition did preliminary work for the one in July 1956, which widely explored the Antarctic in commemoration of the Geophysical Year.

During the original exhibition of paintings from Operation Deepfreeze, Backus discussed why the Navy sends artist to cover Naval activities. "The Navy appreciates that the artist, in reporting his experiences, has the opportunity to convey to his audience a large sense of realization of a subject, the artist is obliged to contemplate the subject reflectively, seeking to penetrate beyond the surface of factual representation, in order to present the true nature of the experience."

After his work for the Navy was completed Backus returned to California and continued painting while also teaching at the University of California. As a dedicated member of his community, he served on the boards of several civic and arts organizations. He died in Santa Barbara in 1989.

There are 72 works by Standish Backus in the collection

California Watercolor

Standish Backus, Jr. (1910-1989) Born: Detroit, MI; Sudied: Princeton University, University of Munich (Germany); Member: American Watercolor Society, California Water Color Society. Standish Backus, Jr. grew up in Michigan and first started painting with watercolors while studying architecture at Princeton University. He continued his art education in Europe and then settled in Santa Barbara. For a brief period in the mid-1930s, he took further instruction in watercolor painting from Eliot O’Hara and then opened a studio and painted full time.

Backus served as an official war artist during World War II and produced watercolors depicting naval battles. He also taught art, produced murals and served as the official naval artist for Admiral Byrd’s 1955 Antarctic expedition.

Bigraphical information:

Interview with Standish Backus, Jr., 1983.

Biography courtesy of California Watercolors 1850-1970,

©2002 Hillcrest Press, Inc.

California Watercolor