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California Watercolorist & Military Genre Painter

By Leslie Seibert

Standish Backus was a combat artist during World War II, an expedition artist to the South Pole, an art educator and teacher, and a leading watercolorist in California. He specialized in the watercolor medium and created memorable landscapes and murals.

Table of Contents


Standish Backus was born to a wealthy family in Detroit, Michigan on April 5, 1910. He studied watercolor and architecture while a student at Princeton University and graduated in 1933 with a degree in art and architecture. After graduation, Backus traveled to Europe where he continued his education by studying painting and European art at the University of Munich. He returned back to the United States a year later, settling in Maine. He spent some time during the mid-1930’s learning about watercolor from Eliot O’Hara (1890-1969), but soon moved out to Santa Barbara, California around 1935, falling into the style of a California watercolorist. He settled in Montecito where he began his career as a commercial artist. He joined the California Watercolor Society in the mid-1930’s, becoming a prominent artist of the California style of watercolor.

Towards the end of the 1930’s Backus had paintings featured in several different exhibitions throughout California. Between 1938 – 1940, his art was exhibited at the Los Angeles Museum of Art, while in 1939, his art was shown at the Golden Gate International Exposition and at the Oakland Art Gallery, where he won a prize. In 1940, his work was also displayed by the California Watercolor. However, Backus soon left civilian life as an artist and reentered the Navy as a combat artist.

In 1941, Backus reported for duty with the Navy, exiting the Naval Reserve he had joined in 1940. During World War II, he served as a navy combat artist and became a specialist in the Net and Boom Defenses. In 1945, he was assigned to cover naval operations in the Pacific where he participated in the entry into Tokyo Bay and witnessed the surrender ceremonies aboard the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945. He was then sent to oversee naval operations in Washington D.C. and was then transferred to the Bureau of Naval Personnel to assist in establishing a special Graphic Presentation Unit. Throughout the war, Backus received promotions, reaching the rank of Commander by 1946. He returned to civilian life around May 1946, soon becoming a teacher for the University of California from 1947-1948. Around this time, Backus’s World War II paintings were displayed in the Navy Combat exhibitions of 1945 and 1946; followed by an exhibition in the California State fairs of 1948 and 1949, where he won two prizes.

About ten years later, he returned to active duty by becoming the official artist for Admiral Byrd’s expedition to the South Pole in 1955-1956, with the job of recording images of the exploration. The first expedition was named “Operation Deepfreeze” and was the preliminary investigation for a later exploration in July of 1956 (Navy Art of Standish Backus, Department of the Navy). During this original expedition, Backus commented on why the Navy sends artists to record 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 (Standish Backus, Department of the Navy).

After these expeditions, he settled back in Santa Barbara and became especially involved in the Santa Barbara art community, serving as a trustee and chairman of the acquisitions committee of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art beginning in 1948. He also served as a trustee of the University Art Museum at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Throughout his career he became a member of the California Watercolor Society, America Watercolor Society (1955 – 1989), American Federation of Arts, Artists Equity Association (NYC), Los Angeles Art Association, and San Diego Fine Arts Society. In 1967, Backus was asked to create a mosaic mural for the Pacific War Memorial in Manila Bay on Corregidor Island, Panama, standing as his last commission. In 1989, he died in Montecito California.


After studying watercolor for some time, Standish Backus moved to California, where he found a place in the growing watercolor scene. The style consisted of large formats with broad, free brush strokes and strong colors (McClelland and Last). The subject depicted by the California watercolor school normally were scenes and activities from everyday life on the pacific coast such as California's cities and industrial sites, its beaches and harbors, and its vast open landscapes (McClelland and Last).

Standish Backus joined the California Watercolor Society in the mid-1930s. In general, Backus’s subjects were normally architecture or buildings, genre (human activity), history, landscape, marine, military genre/figure, and mountains. He was especially known for his landscapes, marine genre, and murals. He normally used watercolor but also experimented with oil and fresco and used many methods for painting. Backus is also recognized for his realist/representational technique. He was influenced by European art and his time studying under Eliot O’Hara, who was known for his impressionist landscapes, marines, genres, and drawings.

In his early work, Backus used loose brush strokes with contrasting colors to create shadows and a sense of depth. These early paintings follow the characteristics of the Regionalist style of the 1930s. For example, Backus’s watercolor Landscape with Train depicts a vast meadow with mountains in the background. He uses a tan brown to color the flat plains and then lightens the hue for the first set of mountains, but then deepens the hue for the furthest mountain range to charcoal grey. This change in color and shading gives multiple dimensions to a flat picture. Backus observed these landscapes and then duplicated them onto the canvas, which he continues to do throughout his artistic career. However, World War II put a halt on the momentum the watercolor movement had generated. Many of the artists went into the army or related work (McClelland and Last). Standish Backus became a combat artist and was sent into the battle fields, where he produced watercolor paintings depicting the harsh war environment very realistically. The many watercolor paintings he created during World War II show the traumatic setting of the battle field. Backus’s Still Life, Hiroshima, shows the aftermath of the atomic bomb. It depicts destroyed buildings and homes with burnt remains scattered throughout a flattened and vacant landscape. The trees are painted in black, representing the intense heat damage from the bomb and skeletons are placed on the ground, illustrating the human destruction. These dramatic images of battle fields are common in all the World War II images Backus created. The images created by combat artists of World War II are described as “desperate, raw depictions made surreal by destruction on an inhuman scale” (Baker).

Upon returning from the war, Backus returned to creating landscapes. Some memorable pieces from this period included scenes he created while on an expedition to the South Pole. These images are depictions of the environment and marine life, including animals, icebergs, and preserved cabins from previous expeditions. For example, Backus’s painting Mt. Erebus depicts the volcanic mountain located in Antarctic. He illuminates the sky with soft light from a low sun and shows the volcanic mountain covered in a vivid white. The other mountains contrast the volcano with a charcoal grey color. He depicts broken ice floating across the ocean as deep blue shows through the cracks and illustrates the boats and penguins in the foreground. This image shows Backus’s devotion to the landscape genre, and his commitment to depicting a realistic environment up to the end of his career.


  • 1910 Born on April 5 in Detroit, Michigan
  • 1933 Graduated from Princeton University
  • 1933-34 Studied at the University of Munich
  • 1934-35 Lived in Maine and took learned from Eliot O’Hara
  • 1935 Settled in Montecito, Santa Barbara, California
  • Mid-1930s Joins the California Watercolor Society
  • 1938-40 Los Angeles Museum of Art Exhibition
  • 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition
  • 1939 Oakland Art Gallery Exhibition
  • 1940 Commissioned as an Ensign in the inactive Naval Reserve
  • 1940 Art Institute of Chicago exhibition
  • 1940 California Watercolor Society exhibition
  • 1941 Reported for duty with the Navy (combat artist specializing in the Net and Boom Defenses)
  • 1945 Assigned to cover Naval operations in the Pacific
  • 1945 Transferred to the Bureau of Naval Personnel to assist in establishing a special Graphic Presentation Unit
  • 1945 Navy Combat Exhibition
  • 1946 Navy Combat Exhibition
  • 1946 Returned to civilian life after World War II
  • 1947-48 Teacher at University of California
  • 1948 Became trustee and chairman for Santa Barbara Museum of Art (lasted for 20 yrs +)
  • 1948 Became trustee for University Art Museum, University of California (lasted 20 yrs +)
  • 1948 California State Fair exhibition
  • 1949 California State Fair exhibition
  • 1955-56 Official artist for Admiral Byrd’s Expedition to the South Pole
  • 1967-68 Creates Pacific War Memorial on the Island of Corregidor in the Philippines
  • 1989 Died in Montecito, California

  • California Watercolor Society
  • Los Angeles County Museum of Art
  • Pacific War Memorial, Panama
  • San Diego Fine Arts Society
  • Santa Barbara Museum of Art
  • Utah State College
  • United States Navy Department, Washington D.C.

  • American Watercolor Society
  • Brooklyn Museum
  • Denver Art Museum
  • IBM Corporation
  • Santa Barbara Museum of Art (solo)
  • 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition
  • 1938 – 1940 Los Angeles County Museum of Art
  • 1939 Oakland Art Gallery (prize)
  • 1940 Art Institute of Chicago
  • 1940 California Watercolor Society (prize)
  • 1945, 1946 Navy Combat Exhibition
  • 1948 & 1949 California State Fair (prizes)

  • American Federation of Arts
  • American Watercolor Society
  • Artists Equity Association, NYC
  • California Watercolor Society
  • Los Angeles Art Association
  • San Diego Fine Art Society
  • VII. Bibliography

    1. 1. Albany Institute of History and Art. Current Exhibition: World War II Navy Art.
    2. 2. Ask Art: The Artists’ Bluebook. “Standish Jr. Backus”
    3. 3. Ask Art: The Artists’ Bluebook. “Standish Jr. Backus”.
    4. 4.Baker, R.C. “The Art of War: Painting in the Wake of the A-Bomb.” The Village Voice.,174402,42460,13.html
    5. 5. McClelland, G. & Last, J.T. “California Watercolors.” The California Style. CalArt: California and American Art. 2003.
    6. 6. California Watercolor “Standish Backus Jr.”.§ion_page=1
    7. 7. Department of the Navy, Naval Historical Center. “Standish Backus”.
    8. 8. Department of the Navy, Naval Historical Center. “Japanese Surrender at Tokyo Bay”.
    9. 9. Department of the Navy, Naval Historical Center. “The Navy Art of Standish Backus”.
    10. 10. Falk, Peter H. Who was who in American Art. “Backus, Standish Jr”. Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1985.
    11. 11. Hughes, Edan. Artist in California, 1786 – 1940. “Backus, Standish Jr.” Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, California.
    12. 12. Los Angeles Contemporary Museum of Art Collections Online.;id=12379;type=701