Paul Cadmus

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Cadmus.jpg Cadmus in 1993

Cadmus, Paul (17 December 1904 - 12 December 1999)

Born in New York City, Cadmus was a comparatively unknown artist until an admiral was offended by one of his works. Then, he became the controversial painter of “The Fleet’s In!” and “The Seven Deadly Sins.”


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The Fleet's In

Cadmus became a distinguished member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1974. In 1984, he was the subject for a video-recording, “Paul Cadmus, Enfant Terrible at 80.” At the time, a New York Times' reviewer noted,

  • Recent interest in representational painting has fostered an appreciation of artists whose realist modes, long out of the stylistic and commercial mainstreams, are now receiving renewed attention. . . . For Mr. Cadmus, best known for his earlier, more accessible works, including the much reproduced New York street and restaurant scenes and Coney Island panoramas, also practices a dark, more personal, visionary magic realism in which black humor and distant allusions are endemic.

With an early lover, Jared French, Cadmus spent time on the island of Majorca, where he painted “Shore Leave” and “YMCA Locker Room.” His circle included Christopher Isherwood, W. H. Auden, George Balanchine, George Platt Lynes, George Tooker, Lincoln Kirstein (the husband of his sister Fidelma), and E. M. Forster.

He was unsure about his ancestry: “I think my ancestors sailed from Jutland (Denmark) around 1710. My father’s side may have been Dutch and, like Erasmus, Latinized the name. My mother, conceived in Spain, was born in New York. Her father was Basque, her mother Cuban. Maybe I was just a cad to begin with,” he joked to Warren Allen Smith, “and the name was Latinized.”

His parents, both artists, encouraged their son and their daughter, Fidelma, to study art, and Cadmus began with an interest in antiques. One day at the National Academy of Design in uptown Manhattan and knowing that older art students had nude models to work with, he peered through a peephole and saw a naked female. “I had never seen a stranger in the nude. It was a revelation,” he told journalist Richard Goldstein. Naked men would follow. It was the start of his becoming the artist who painted the male body with more sensuality, Goldstein observed (Village Voice, 18 May 1999), than any American artist of the century:

  • “The Fleet’s In!” [is] the 1934 painting that made him an art star. In this knowing study of carousing sailors, there are not only buns and baskets on proud display but loose ladies admiring the briny trade and even a fey gentleman offering a cigarette to an eager gob. The navy was not amused. An outraged admiral had the painting removed before it could be shown at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. A sequel, “Sailors and Floosies” (1938), featuring the angelic seaman in slumber, grasping his crotch, fared no better in San Francisco; “in the interest of national unity,” it was taken off the wall. In “Shore Leave” (1933), a gay man is clearly propositioning a willing sailor, but what one notices first is the ripe women in the foreground and a recumbent swab with his bulging crotch in full view. Sometimes the queers come out to play, as in “Fantasia on a Theme by Dr. S.” (1946), which is set on Fire Island. But usually the artist’s eye is drawn to what is often ignored in modern painting: a casually muscled male physique and an utterly open attitude. Looking at this pantheon of locker-room studs, seafood Sampsons, and young waifs lounging in the playground with baseball bats jammed between their legs, one sees a quality beyond the ideologically mandated worship of the working class. Call it longing. “I was fascinated by the sailors, and I used to sit on a bench and watch them all the time,” Cadmus recalls. In fact, Riverside Park around 96th Street was a prime cruising ground in the 1930s, largely because it was where the warships docked. “The uniforms were so tight and form-fitting that they were an inspiration. I was young enough to be propositioned by the sailors, who would offer to take me back to the boat, but I never went. They were too unattractive, or maybe I was too timid. I don’t know.”

“The male nude has been a specialty of my own oeuvre,” Cadmus agreed, “when I am not being concerned with the foibles of people in daily life: men, women, and children. . . . We are made, we are told, ‘in God’s image,’ and we assume that He was not clothed by Armani or Brooks Brothers or, if He is She, not attired by Balenciaga or Donna Karan.”

In 1992, Lincoln Kirstein, the founding director of the New York City Ballet, wrote a definitive study, Paul Cadmus, which described his relationship with other artists and writers, including W. H. Auden. E. M. Forster, while posing for a portrait, was said to have passed the time reading aloud passages from Maurice. Kirstein described Cadmus’s work as being “executed with the technical virtuosity and anatomical precision of the Renaissance masters that celebrate the beauty of the human body.”

Lust, One of the Cardinal Sins

Agreeing, Guy Davenport in an introduction for The Drawings of Paul Cadmus (1989) stated that “Not since Michelangelo has any artist done so many studies of the male nude.” He included dozens of such examples. Cadmus, who in 94 years completed over 120 paintings, delighted in such observations. “I do love Michelangelo’s male forms,” he has said, adding that “Michelangelo’s women often look like males with grapefruits attached.” “It seems that genitalia,” Cadmus lamented about the public taste, “equal pornography.” But not for him personally: “My penis is not the most important organ in my body. My eyes are.”

In 1989, after a discussion about philosophy, he responded to a request by Warren Allen Smith for his views about humanism:

  • Your request should have a worthy answer but it would take me days to try to compose one (as I used to do when I first began writing to E. M. Forster). The subject is too complicated for this feeble old mind to go into deeply. The simple description of a humanist is one who is interested in humans (not as profound as the Oxford Universal Dictionary’s definition, “a student of human affairs, or of human nature”). I’m no student. I guess I somewhat fit in Naturalistic Humanism #7.

Later, in an interview at his Connecticut home, Cadmus discussed religion and his increased interest in the philosophy of naturalistic humanism. “I’ve always liked the story of the Albigensians,” Cadmus mused, “who were besieged by the Pope at Beziers. His soldiers asked him: ‘How do we know the heretics from the Christians?’ The Pope replied, ‘Burn them all. God will know his own.’ ” A devout Catholic until he was seventeen, he then “shed it all.”

Cadmus is cited by Charles Kaiser in The Gay Metropolis 1940—1996 (1997) as having painted key individuals and scenes of that period. Kaiser noted that Cadmus met Jon Andersson, 27, when he himself was 59 and “I never wanted to be with anyone else.” That included the time he was invited to a long-ago party by Truman Capote. Capote’s long-time companion Jack Dunphy told him he could not bring a male guest, that “Truman said he didn’t want to ask ‘a bunch of fags’ to his party.” This infuriated Andersson and was one of the few times the two did not appear together in public or private.

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At a book signing when Kaiser referred to Cadmus as the only artist to draw so many male nudes, the then ninety-two-year-old quipped, “Well, there was Michelangelo.” Kaiser quotes Cadmus as having been interviewed by Alfred Charles Kinsey: “He took homosexuality just as calmly as he did his work with wasps. He interviewed me about my sex life–how many orgasms, how big it was, measure it before and after.” Kinsey even went to dinner at Cadmus’s house following the interview.

Cadmus died at his home in Weston, Connecticut, five days before his 95th birthday, which he had joyously celebrated two weeks earlier with several hundred friends at the D. C. Moore Gallery in New York City.

An Interview

See the interview that was published in 2000, one that discusses his name, his work, his lovers, and secular humanism.


{“Men Without Women, Paul Cadmus as Curator,” National Academy of Design, 1999; “The Great Impresario: Lincoln Kirstein,” The New Yorker, 13 April 1998; WAS, 28 May 1989 and numerous conversations; Warren Allen Smith, “Paul Cadmus: Artist-Humanist,” Free Inquiry, Summer 1996}