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Standish Backus Jr. (1910 – 1989)

Trailbreakers, oil on masonite, 1937, signed and dated lower left, 24 x 30 inches, exhibited: 1) Santa Barbara Artists Association, Chamber of Commerce Gallery, Santa Barbara, California, March, 1937 (see Artists Open Exhibition with Informal Reception, The Morning Press, March 24, 1937 (“the artists included . . . Standish Backus, Jr., ‘Trailbreakers,’ snow painting . . . “); and 2) Seventh Summer Exhibition, Faulkner Memorial Art Gallery, Santa Barbara, California, July – August 1937 (label verso) (see Webb, Margaret Ely, Notes on Seventh Summer Show Written by Artist, Santa Barbara News Press, July 25, 1937); presented in a newer painted stepped frame


About the Painting

As Jean Stern notes in Windows in Time California Scene Paintings from the Hilbert Collection, Standish Backus “painted in brilliant color with a genuine flair for decorative description.” Trailbreakers aptly fits this description with its bright palette and striking contours, which caught the attention of the critic for the Santa Barbara News Press, when it was exhibited in 1937 at Santa Barbara’s Faulkner Memorial Art Gallery. “Standish Backus Jr.," wrote Margaret Ely Webb, "in his study of patterned shadows outlining a snowdrift also suggests an unseen valley but he uses blue to hold his color scheme in solution . . ." Backus’ celebration of the beauty and expansiveness of the American landscape was part of a trend during the 1930s when many artists turned to nature as part of the Regionalist impulse to depict their local environment and escape the harsh realities of the Great Depression. This was particularly true as the economic downturn in California was less severe than many other parts of the country and the State became an almost mythical golden destination for many fleeing the Dust Bowl and the American South.

About the Artist

Standish Backus, Jr. was a prominent Santa Barbara artist best known for his California Scene paintings. Born into a wealthy Detroit family, Backus studied architecture at Princeton where he first began to paint in watercolor. After Princeton, Backus studied briefly with Eliot O’Hara and went to Munich where he attended art lectures. Upon his return to the US, Backus moved to Santa Barbara in 1935. During World War II, Backus served in the Pacific as combat artist for the Navy and was on the USS Missouri for the Japanese surrender. He was among the first artists to record the devastation of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. After the war, he taught art at the University of California Santa Barbara in 1947-48. In 1955, the Navy reactivacted Backus to serve as an artist on Admiral Richard Byrd’s Operation Deep Freeze in the Antarctic. He was a member of the American Watercolor Society, the California Watercolor Society, and the Santa Barbara Art Association and exhibted often during the 1930s and 1940s, including at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Golden Gate International Exposition, the Oakland Art Gallery, the San Diego Museum, the Santa Barbara Museum (solo), the California State Fair (prizes) and the US Department of the Navy. His works are in the collections of the Laguna Art Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the University of California Santa Barbara ADA Museum Omeka, among others.


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