December 17, 1904– Paul Cadmus is one of those influential gay American artists of all time. His take on sexual identity dramatically shaped 20th century painting, along with: Thomas Eakins, Marsden Hartley, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, among other favorites. Gay artists were frequently not fully a part of the society that they portrayed, instead taking on the role of outsider. From that point of view they found innovative, revolutionary ways of offering their art.
Cadmus is a longtime favorite artist for me. I have a “coffee table” book of his work that has had a great deal of attention and perusing. The Husband and I have been thrilled at seeing many of his works in museums. I am hard pressed to choose a favorite.
Cadmus’ life spanned nearly all of the last century, entering this world in 1904, and leaving in 1999. On his last day , he took his usual daily walk down his country road, and got into bed with his partner of 35 years, singer/actor Jon Anderson, and then quietly went to the next world. He left in the preferred method: peacefully in his sleep of no apparent illness. This happened five days before his 95th birthday and 11 days after 300 closest friends had gathered to celebrate him.
His combination of meticulous classicism and gay sensibility makes him one of America’s greatest artists. Cadmus was a true “magic realist”.
Cadmus was born in NYC into a family of commercial artists. He attended art classes at the National Academy Of Design when he was just 15-years-old. He took advertising work until 1931 when he began studying at the Art Students League where he met fellow artist Jared French. The pair of painters became boyfriends. French urged Cadmus to give up on commercial art. In 1931, Cadmus did his first of a series of paintings of French. The painting, Jerry, shows French holding a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which had been banned in the USA for being obscene.
Cadmus and French went to Europe, as most American painters did at the time, and settled on the island of Majorca. Cadmus painted a pair of his most noted early works, YMCA Locker Room and The Bicyclists (later owned by songwriter Cole Porter) during this period. After their return to NYC in 1933, Cadmus went to work for the Public Works Of Art Project, a part of FDR’s WPA program.
He became an unlikely cause célèbre in 1934, when the U.S. Navy brass went berserk over The Fleet’s In!, a glorious epic depiction of uniformed sailors on shore leave that included prostitutes and a gay pickup. The painting led the Secretary Of The Navy, Claude Swanson, to remove it from an important WPA art show. But, because of that controversy, Cadmus’ major first show, held at Washington DC’s Corcoran Galleries, attracted huge crowds and all his painting sold. Cadmus remarked six decades later:
“I owe that admiral a very large sum!.”
The Fleet’s In! was kept from public view until 1981. It is now available for you to see at The Navy Art Gallery in Washington DC. Conservatives still find it shocking; the tight, butt and crotch clinging clothing on the sailors is far from subtle. Senator Lindsay Graham was recently spotted crying in front of it.
In 1937, French left Cadmus and married their mutual friend, photographer Margaret Hoening. The three of them stayed buddies. For the next decade Cadmus and the Frenches summered on Fire Island and they formed a photographic collective called PaJaMa (Paul, Jared, Margaret).
PaJaMa began to experiment with the camera during summers on the beaches of Fire Island and Provincetown. Their photographs documented the beginnings of the gay culture of the island and P-town.. Their subjects included friends and family, but mostly they studied each other through the camera lens for the next two decades. They collected the photographs, saved them in albums, and gave them to their friends and lovers. No one really cared until the 1980s when photography began to be considered Art. Now these pictures are shown in galleries and museums and are worth ten of thousands of dollars each. They were profoundly influenced by the camera, and their photographs were often studies for their paintings. French saved the Kodachrome slides and with the help of Cadmus supplying the dates and places, they published in 1992, Collaboration.
French left this world in 1988 at his home in Rome where he had lived for two decades. His NY Times obituary failed to mention Cadmus.
Cadmus continued to shock the stodgy public. A mural commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service was rejected for being “unsuitable for a public building”. In 1939, Sailors And Floozies, another painting depicting drunken sailors, was removed from San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exhibition. The same year, a mural done for the Richmond, Virginia post office, The Rescue Of Captain John Smith By Pocahontas, had to be retouched because it showed the bare butts and bulging crotches of male Native Americans figures, although showing Pocahonta’ tits proved to be no problem.
The 1930s and 1940s were Cadmus’ most successful years despite, or because of, the controversies. His social life included glamorous parties with his circle of famous gay friends: W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Edith Sitwell, and E.M. Forster.
Cadmus had love affairs with the great photographer George Platt Lynnes, for whom Cadmus was a frequent model, and Lincoln Kirstein, founder of NYC Ballet, and with fellow painter George Tooker.
Cadmus possessed perfect posture, a lifelong lovely full head of hair and piercing blue eyes. He was as luminous and engaging as his paintings. From everything I have read about Cadmus, he was generous and he sincerely cared about other people, which may sound like a small thing, but it is actually rather rare among artists of his caliber.
“Edith Sitwell said: ‘A gentleman is never unintentionally rude’,’ I don’t think a gentleman should ever be rude under any circumstances.”
I can’t help but wonder how amazing it would have been to be a member of his circle.