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.
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.