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Standish Backus (1910-1989)

 Standish Backus

C. 1946 Official Navy Photo
Standish Backush Port Hueneme CA

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, 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 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.

C. 1946 Official Navy Photo
Standish Backus before This Was Hyuga

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


C. 1956 Offical Navy Photo
Standish Backus before Life & Death in the Antartic

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


Standish Backus #12
Watercolor, 1946


The process of winning the ground from the enemy so that a great base for future operations might be built, developing it as a harbor, constructing the base facilities, and using it as a base, all had to go on simultaneously at Guam. Bottlenecked, as always, was cargo handling in a very limited docking area. The rains came and went many times a day. Traffic sank into the muck, units dropped out to be hauled out later. Huge cats pulling loads of coral kept the causeways going. And the air hung with moisture and sweat.


The Cemetery at Sumay, Guam
Standish Backus #8
Watercolor, 1945


Completely surrounding this quiet relic of old Guam is the incredible bustle of activity and construction that goes along with the largest overseas base. The rotting skull of a former Japanese "twin-row" aircraft engine reminds one of the recent and unwelcome inhabitant and always there are souvenir hunters who pause for possible plunder. Over all settles heavy coatings of dust from the round-the clock traffic of heavy trucks.


Online Exhibits that feature Standish Backus's work

The Navy Art of Standish Backus
The Japanese Surrender at Tokyo Bay
World War II Navy Art: A Vision of History
Operation Deepfreeze I: 1955-56:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

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07 March 2003