American artist Paul Cadmus (1904–1999) was a young and unknown painter in 1934, but he became famous overnight when a minor scandal erupted over his painting The Fleet's In!
Its depiction of American sailors on shore leave aroused the ire of Navy officials, and it vanished for decades from the public view. That work, as well as Cadmus's subsequent images, usually featured heroically muscled young men, and he later became one of the first contemporary artists to be recognized as a chronicler of gay life. "I wasn't trying to foster gay rights," Cadmus told Howard Feinstein in the Advocate about the Fleet painting and his other efforts. "I recorded what I saw and thought and knew."
A native of New York City, Cadmus was born on December 17, 1904, and grew up on the Upper West Side, near Amsterdam Avenue and 103rd Street. Both parents were artistically gifted: his father was an commercial lithographer who created advertising images, and his mother had illustrated children's books, but the family, which included Cadmus's younger sister, Fidelma, was quite poor. He told Judd Tully in an interview conducted for the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art that their apartment building was "a horrible tenement. We lived with lots of bedbugs and cockroaches." He also suffered from childhood rickets, a condition brought on by vitamin deficiency.
At the age of 14 Cadmus enrolled in art classes at the National Academy of Design, where his parents had met years earlier. Soon afterward he dropped out of his regular high school classes to enroll full-time at the art school, a move his parents encouraged. He became particularly fascinated by the art of the Italian Renaissance, when artists rediscovered some essential principles of human figure drawing that had been lost for more than a millennium. He spent six years at the Academy, winning several student awards and scholarship prize money during his time there, before moving on to classes at the Art Students League of New York City for another two years. By 1930 he had progressed from freelance illustration work for newspapers to a well-paying job with a small advertising agency, but in the autumn of 1931 he quit the job and sailed for Europe with Jared French, a friend from the League classes. Their plan was to live somewhere cheaply and paint full-time.
Cadmus and French discovered Majorca, one of the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain, and spent nearly two years there before their savings ran out. As Cadmus recalled in the interview with Tully, "I painted very few Majorcan subjects actually. Most of my paintings were things I remembered from America, like the Locker Room and the Sailors Night, the Shore Leave painting. I was working just in oil paints in those days." When he returned to America, the country was deep in an economic recession, and work of any sort was difficult to find. Cadmus applied for and received a spot on the payroll of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), a government program that paid him $32 a week to paint. This was later folded into the larger Works Progress Administration (WPA), a federal agency whose aim was to curb widespread unemployment in America by matching job seekers with government-funded assignments. WPA workers built roads, dams, and other major infrastructure projects, but some were hired as artists and writers for various cultural programs.
Within a few months Cadmus had produced two works: Greenwich Village Cafeteria and The Fleet's In! The latter painting was chosen for a PWAP exhibition planned for the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It depicted young sailors on shore leave, chatting with flashily dressed women who were likely prostitutes, with all seeming to be in an exuberant mood that was probably alcohol-induced. There are more than a dozen figures in the painting, but in one section a sailor is depicted accepting a cigarette from a man in a suit. The civilian wears a red tie, one of the quiet sartorial signals that gay men used to identify one another prior to the gay liberation movement of the 1960s; it was a time when nearly all gay men remained "in the closet" for fear of social or professional ostracism.
The Fleet's In! became the center of controversy when the Washington Evening Star newspaper ran a photograph of it in a story about the art exhibit the day before it was to open. A retired Navy admiral named Hugh Rodman read the story, and was outraged at the depiction of U.S. Navy personnel carousing while off duty. Rodman managed to get Cadmus's painting removed from the exhibition before it opened to the public, and other newspapers quickly picked up the story. The admiral even asserted that the work should be destroyed, describing it as "an insult to the enlisted men of the American Navy" and "a scene originated in the depraved imagination of someone who has no conception of conditions in our service," according to a story by Eleanor Charles in the New York Times . But Cadmus had painted the scene from his own firsthand experiences watching sailors come ashore for the weekend at Riverside Drive around 96th Street, the site of a U.S. Navy pier at the time. "What I actually saw sailors and their girlfriends doing in Riverside Drive Park far exceeded anything that I could have put on canvas," he told Charles.
Cadmus also told the press, as the publicity surrounding his work grew, that Rodman and the other Navy brass who were so irate "must rule an Alice in Wonderland navy in a dream world. They ought to take a walk along the drive some night when the fleet's in," he said, according to Charles. He even received threatening phone calls, and stayed away from his New York City apartment for a time. Most of the debate surrounding The Fleet's In! mentioned its depiction of sailors drinking and flirting with women, but the subtle pick-up between two men showed "homoeroticism [at] a time when it was virtually invisible within the public sphere of American painting and all but unspeakable within the official discourses of art criticism," noted Richard Meyer in an Art Journal essay. Back in Washington, Rodman had ordered the painting removed from the Corcoran, and it wound up at the Navy Department. Finally Assistant Secretary of the Navy Henry Latrobe Roosevelt took it home with him in order to settle the dispute and end any possibility of it being shown in public. Roosevelt was the cousin of the sitting president, Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945), the man who had launched the WPA project when he took office in 1933.
The scandal generated excellent publicity for the young artist, however, and he would later say that he owed Rodman a debt for the inadvertent career boost. He continued to paint images that displeased a public who hoped to be flattered instead: a 1935 work, Coney Island , was included in a show at the Whitney Museum of American Art that year, but residents of the Coney Island neighborhood threatened to sue.
Cadmus also submitted sketches for murals planned for a public library in Port Washington, New York; these murals were common WPA jobs during the late 1930s, but his work was rejected for its satirical look at the leisure habits of the affluent in America. He later completed paintings of Aspects of Suburban Life: Main Street and Aspects of Suburban Life: Golf . Like most of his work, the paintings quickly wound up in private collections. He signed with the prestigious Midtown Galleries on Madison Avenue and 57th Street, and his 1937 show receive a stunning seven thousand visitors.
Cadmus's artistic fame waned in the years following World War II. His style remained firmly rooted in the social realism he perfected in the 1930s, but by the early 1950s tastes were changing, and abstract painting emerged as a strong new force in American art. Critics sometimes compared Cadmus's images to Normal Rockwell's overly sentimental cover illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post , only with a more debauched mood than Rockwell's folksy feel-good Americana. In some instances his work was rejected for museum exhibitions by curators who feared its homoerotic overtones might upset the community. Cadmus's career was also hampered by his preferred medium: since the 1940s he had been working exclusively in egg tempera. This was a painstaking method that dated back to the Renaissance era, and it sometimes took him six months to finish a single painting.
Until the late 1980s Cadmus produced one or two paintings a year, working in his later years out of a skylit studio at his home in Connecticut. The house had been a gift from Lincoln Kirstein, who was married to Cadmus's sister, Fidelma. Kirstein was general director of the New York City Ballet, and was one of a roster of eminent friends Cadmus accrued over the years, such as fellow ballet luminary George Balanchine and the writers E. M. Forster, W. H. Auden, and Christopher Isherwood. Interest in Cadmus's work was renewed in the early 1980s when The Fleet's In! finally went on public display, first at a Miami museum and then in a retrospective of his work that toured several cities. He was unaware of what had happened to the painting after Admiral Rodman had it removed from the Corcoran. It turned out that when Henry L. Roosevelt died in 1936, he bequeathed the painting to the Alibi Club, a private men's club in Washington, D.C. It hung there for years, unbeknownst to Cadmus, until a graduate student who was writing a dissertation on the work successfully challenged the club to give it up. Philip Eliasoph, later the author of a book on Cadmus, argued that the work had been painted with taxpayer money—Cadmus was receiving his stipend from the Public Works of Art Project at the time—and therefore should be available to the public, not restricted to members of an exclusive private club.
Beginning in the late 1960s Cadmus lived with his partner, Jon Andersson, a former cabaret singer who appeared in many of his later paintings. Cadmus died a few days shy of his 95th birthday on December 12, 1999, in Weston, the Connecticut town where they had lived since 1975. In the lengthy oral history transcribed for Archives of American Art, Cadmus told Tully that after 50 years as a painter, he was happy with the trajectory of his career, though he had never achieved lasting fame or a consensus of critical appreciation. He quoted a line from one of his favorite painters, the French neoclassicist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867): "'People say my paintings are not right for the times' or something like that," Cadmus recalled. "But then he says, 'Can I help it if the times are wrong? If I'm the only one that's right, it's all right.'"
Advocate (The National Gay & Lesbian Newsmagazine) , August 17, 1999; February 1, 2000.
Art Journal , Fall 1998.
New York Times , March 21, 1982; March 8, 1992; December 15, 1999.
"Interview with Paul Cadmus," Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Art, http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/oralhistories/transcripts/cadmus88.htm (November 28, 2006).