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Standish Backus (1910-1989)


Adelie Penguins North of Franklin Island
Standish Backus #49
Watercolor on paper, 1956


"First contact with these delightful and companionable creatures found them frolicking at their mid-summer feeding grounds among the ice floes in the Ross Sea. Being great swimmers they apparently fear nothing in the sea but must respect the leopard seal who pursues them. They may be seen far from land and even in open water free of all drift ice. Here, they are shown as our ship approached its rendezvous north of McMurdo Sound near 2000' Franklin Island. 13000' volcano Mt. Erebus on Ross Island was clearly visible 100 miles to the south at our destination." --Commander Standish Backus


Mount Erebus
Standish Backus #38
Watercolor on paper, 1956

"The great 'Sacred' mountain of the Antarctic, this 13,000 foot active volcano is among the most majestic, beautiful, inspiring and forbidding prominences on earth. So domineering that one is aware of its existence visually from well over 100 miles distance, so aloof that it seems to maintain its own mantle of weather apart from anything being experienced by our lowly fleet at her feet (though quite capable of throwing 100 knots of wind in our direction when bored with her other moods), so terrifying that to step boldly at random on her flanks would amount to becoming engulfed instantly in some vast crevasse, so benign in the soft, warm light of the low sun as to permit her to take high place among the sentimental scenic settings in the world. In such a mood as the latter have I tempted to record a brief moment of Erebus. Vessels represented, from the left, MSTS Greenville Victory, Arneb, Nespelen, YOG-34, Wyandot, Navy icebreaker Edisto, Coast Guard icebreaker Eastwind."--Commander Standish Backus


Mid-Summer Scene, McMurdo Sound
Standish Backus #34
Watercolor on paper, 1956


"Six weeks during December and January comprise the Antarctic Summer, the season when expeditions from the north can break through the melting sea ice and reach the edges of the ice barriers or the continent itself. New Years Day 1956 found the ships of Operation Deepfreeze moored to the ice edge at the outer entrance of McMurdo Sound, some fifty miles from the site of the projected base at Hut Point. Fine weather prevailed at this time affording surprising pleasant hours for leisure groups out of the ice." --Commander Standish Backus


Antarctic Beauty Contest
Standish Backus #46
Watercolor on paper, 1956


"This attractive female elephant seal, observed at Cap Hallett in Victoria Land, is the subject of a 'Rhubarb' among the male judges who are trying to decide who has a date with her for tonight. As to the outcome--well, she just couldn't care less."--Commander Standish Backus

As a slang term, "rhubarb" means a heated, disorderly dispute, not necessarily a fistfight but one involving a lot of yelling.


The Antarctic Patrol
Standish Backus #36
Watercolor on paper, 1956


"One who has experienced it can scarcely conceive of Antarctica without associating it irrevocably with its outer approaches. North of the Continent on every side is some fifteen hundred miles of landless water, like a necklace studded with storms pursuing one another endlessly around the world. Anchoring these defenses, like great ghostly bastions of the Powers of Darkness, the very fragments of violence move the tabular icebergs. Constantly patrolling these watery wastes, while deriving power from the huge seas, wheel the albatrosses. The wandering albatross here depicted is the largest of the species with an eleven-foot wingspread. Intruding this scene U.S.S. Glacier passes on her voyage around the Antarctic world, March and April 1956." --Commander Standish Backus


Life and Death in the Antarctic
Standish Backus #37
Watercolor on paper, 1956


"The preponderance of life in the Antarctic seems quite overwhelming, literally. All of it exists in or is dependent on the sea. The predations that normally occur even among the mammals, highest order on the scale of life, greatly impressed this observer. Here a seal, having sensed the approach of a pack of killer whales, fiercest animals on earth, seeks doubtful refuge on a rotting bergy bit, or ice fragment. The tall triangular dorsal fin of the leading bull whales is a symbol of fear, the sign of the sinister that one cannot avoid anywhere in the far south."--Commander Standish Backus


Killer Whales Attacking a Finback
Standish Backus #48
Watercolor on paper, 1956



"The great predatory cycle of life so evident in Antarctica seas sometimes produces spectacular actions such as this where the carnivorous mammals turn as a pack and devour their own kind like this plankton-eating baleen whale. The latter, though usually much larger than the killers, is defenseless against them and, after numerous frantic leaps, tires and submits to being torn apart."--Commander Standish Backus


The Antarctic Butcher
Standish Backus #52
Watercolor on paper, 1956


Although this scene and the painting's title make the seaman's actions appear barbaric, in actuality, killing seals in order to feed the sled dogs was a regular, necessary task. Task Force 43 had twenty-eight huskies as part of the crew. They were on hand for rescue and reconnaissance and were used where heavy track vehicles would bog down in snow and ice.


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:

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07 March 2003