Monday, October 25, 2010

Paul Cadmus - Beauty's all Things B

Cadmus, to our enormous benefit, understands that beauty is bodies, brains, buttocks, bathtubs, bicycles, Bach, bravado and bad behaviour; beauty's all things B. (Steven Jenkins)

Luigi Lucioni, Portrait of Paul Cadmus, 1928

Paul Cadmus (1904-1999) was born in New York City into a family of commercial artists. (NYC isn't exactly located in Central Europe - which is, more or less, the gravity center of this blog - but I feel free to shift focus once in a while). Cadmus' father, who had little money, was a commercial lithographer who had studied with Robert Henri, and his mother was an illustrator of children's books. At 15, before he finished high school, he was enrolled in art classes at the National Academy of Design. 

 Paul Cadmus, Jerry, 1931. "I've never had a good chest. My chest has always been rather weak. It's one reason why I think I draw such beautiful chests on other people", Cadmus observed in 1988.

Within two years Cadmus was admitted to the life drawing classes and by 1926 had completed his course work, having won numerous prizes and scholarships. Cadmus did advertising jobs until 1931 and studied at the Art Students League. There he met the painter Jared French, who became his lover and urged him to quit commercial art. In 1931, Cadmus made one of his first paintings depicting French. The painting, Jerry (above), remained in the French family until recently, when it was acquired by the Toledo Museum of Art. The small painting - it's just 20-by-24 inches - is strikingly intimate. French is holding James Joyce's Ulysses, then banned in the United States for being obscene. (According to Richard Meyer's Outlaw Representation, a friend of Cadmus had smuggled the book into the US from Europe and had given it to him as a gift).

Paul Cadmus, Byciclists, 1933

After hopping on an oil tanker to Europe and cycling through France and Spain, Cadmus and French stayed on the island of Majorca (1931-1933), where Cadmus painted two of his best-known early works, YMCA Locker Room and the above Bicyclists (later bought by Cole Porter). After his return to New York in 1933, Cadmus became the center of a circle of gay artists including his brother-in-law, Lincoln Kirstein, who helped found the American School of Ballet, Pavel Tchelitchew, and the photographer George Platt Lynes, for whom Cadmus frequently modeled. 

Paul Cadmus,  Self Portrait, Mallorca, c. 1932

Along with Bernard Perlin, Jared French, and George Tooker, Cadmus became known as a "Magical Realist", though none of the artists truly accepted the term. At the time, he worked for the Public Works of Art Project, which was later incorporated into the WPA. This experience was to help shape his style for the rest of his long career. Nearly illustrative, his paintings remained linked to a realist style found in many WPA works of the 1930s.   

Paul Cadmus, The Fleet’s In, 1934

In 1934, Cadmus' above painting The Fleet's In, depicting the pleasures of uniformed sailors, was removed from an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington (at the same venue and in similar circumstances fifty years later, Robert Mapplethorpe's pictures were to suffer a similar fate). Outraged Navy officials saw a newspaper reproduction of the painting and pulled the work from the show. This "disreputable drunken brawl" came from "the sordid, depraved imagination of someone who has no conception of actual conditions in our service", fumed Secretary of Navy Claude Swanson. Like a stealth cruiser, The Fleet was kept from public view until 1981 and is now temporarily displayed at the Navy Art Gallery in Washington.

Paul Cadmus, Coney Island, 1935

Cadmus' painting Coney Island (above) also became the subject of controversy. Its portrayal of local residents enraged Brooklyn realtors, who threatened to file a civil suit against the Whitney Museum of American Art. Similarly, his commission for the Port Washington post office, Pocahontas and John Smith (1938) was also regarded as scandalous and cancelled. As a result of Cadmus' notoriety, his 1937 exhibition at Midtown Galleries in New York attracted more than 7.000 visitors.

Paul Cadmus, Aviator, 1941

After yet another successful show in 1937, Time magazine reported of the paintings on display: "Around the walls sailors tousled their trollops, perverts beckoned from a cafeteria washroom, and slatterns rioted on public beaches. These are the principal aspects of US life that attract Cadmus' attention, and he shrewdly draws and crudely colours them." 1937 was also a significant year in Cadmus’s private life - his lover Jared left him and married a mutual friend, Margaret Hoening. The three of them remained close friends, however, and worked together on a number of photography projects.

Paul Cadmus, Aspects of Suburban Life, 1935

Throughout the late 1930s Cadmus continued to shock. His Aspects of Suburban Life series (above) commissioned as murals for a post office were rejected as "unsuitable for a public building" and in 1938 he showed once again what can be done with a drunken sailor in Sailors and Floozies (below), this one temporarily removed from the Golden Gate International Exhibition in San Francisco in 1939. Putting it back on the wall, the director of the Palace of Fine Arts said: "If every picture to which some may object is removed, none would remain."

Paul Cadmus, Sailors and Floosies, 1938

In 1940 came another rejection, this time from Life magazine, which had commissioned 16 artists to paint significant events in American history after 1915. Cadmus chose to depict the tragic Herrin massacre (shown below), a labor contract dispute which occurred in the mining town of Herrin, Illinois in 1925. The bloody riot resulted in twenty-six dead strikebreakers, slain by labor union members. Some were hanged, others lined up against a fence and shot, and in some cases, some were forced to dig their own graves. Cadmus' painting was never published by Life, most likely because the magazine did not wish to offend organized labor just as the nation was gearing up for war production.

Paul Cadmus, Herrin Massacre, 1940

Despite the stream of rejections, the 1930s and 1940s were Cadmus' most successful years. Professionally, he was at his peak and his social life was an endless whirl of glamorous Manhattan parties where he was feted by friends including W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Edith Sitwell,  George Platt Lynes, and  E.M. Forster ("I do not believe in belief"). Cadmus' painting What I Believe was inspired by Forster's essay of the same name, in which he expressed his faith in personal relations: "Love and loyalty to an individual can run counter to the claims of the state. When they do - down with the state, say I, which means that the state will down me." Forster, the story goes, read his homoerotic novel Maurice aloud while Cadmus was painting his portrait.

Paul Cadmus, Fences, 1946

Cadmus' own favourite work dates from 1958. Once asked which painting he would save from the flames in the event of a fire, he responded quickly, "Night in Bologna is the summa of my career" (G.B. Shaw once had responded to the same silly question: "The one next to the emergency exit"). Night in Bologna depicts a farce of miscalculated seductions. An Italian soldier yearns for a curvaceous female hooker; she, in turn, tries to seduce a crewcut American tourist, while he gazes back at the Italian man with envy and lust.

Paul Cadmus, Night in Bologna, 1958

In real life, meanwhile, Cadmus spent much of this period in a triangle of his own. In the post-war 1940s he had been involved with artist George Tooker but the pair broke up in 1949. Said Tooker: "I was looking for a relationship and my relationship with Paul always included Jared and Margaret French." But Cadmus was once again to find love in 1964 when he met Jon Andersson, a singer and actor who became his boyfriend for the next 35 years. The young man inspired a series of exquisite nude drawings and the striking Study for a David and Goliath, a homage to Caravaggio, in which Jon brandishes a T square above Cadmus' head, the painter's red scarf marking the point of decapitation. Cadmus also explored his relationship with Andersson.  in later works, such as The Haircut:

Paul Cadmus, The Haircut, 1986

Cadmus' narrative style - he referred to himself as a ''literary painter'' - fell out of favor with the art establishment after the rise of Abstract Expressionism in the 1940's. But by that time he had already achieved more than one widely publicized succès de scandale. Near the end of his life there was a renewed interest in his work, sparked at least in part by the success of the gay and lesbian liberation movement, as well as by a resurgence of interest in representational art. The revival of interest in Cadmus was given impetus by the first edition of Lincoln Kirstein's illustrated biography

Paul Cadmus, Finistère, 1952

Cadmus was a slow, meticulous worker who favored the complicated, time-consuming medium of egg tempera. He finished an average of only two paintings a year. He was, however, more prolific in other forms, including drawing, printmaking and, early on, photography. Although Cadmus stopped painting towards the end of his life, he continued to draw at his home in Weston, Connecticut, particularly portraits and figure studies of Jon Andersson. Paul Cadmus died in his home in Weston in 1999, just five days short of his 95th birthday. The Smithonian Archives have published online an excellent 1988 interview with Paul Cadmus.


  1. Fantastic post. You have ignited my interest.

  2. Thank you kindly. I have happened on references to Cadmus and his work in a book I am reviewing - "A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster". So far it is highly enlightening.

  3. I too stumbled in or onto this site. The works and words of Cadmus are a great inspiration. It's sad not to have known him.
    However I am also glad, thanks for exposing him to me.


  4. Saw his work in mid 1970s as some young realist Manhattan artists were turning to straightforward realism a la Pearlstein. Work reminded me of Bellows too much but glad to see it. Realism & portraits at high end still getting some attention. I like to mix in a little Alex Katz for variety and modern look. Less illustration. Thanks. Oh what's with the triangle symbol for Fences, 1946?

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