Night in Bologna, Paul Cadmus, 1958
A young Paul Cadmus by Luigi Lucioni
Considered one of the world's first openly gay artists, Paul Cadmus would have preferred just to have been known as a great artist. He was born in 1904 to artistic and bohemian parents in New York City. In an interview for the Smithsonian he said, “our apartment was in a horrid tenement building and we lived there crowded with other poverty stricken working families, we lived every day with cockroaches and bedbugs, inadequate heating in the winter and inadequate cooling in the summer months”.
At the age of 14 he dropped out of high school to attend The National Academy of Design, where his parents had met. He spent 6 years there and then spent his last two years of academic training at the Art Students League of New York City.
In the fall of 1931 Paul Cadmus and his friend, Jared French, set off for Europe. The dollar was strong and they planned to live frugally and paint without the distraction of jobs or school.
Portrait of Jared French "Jerry" by Paul Cadmus, 1931
Paul Cadmus and Jared French by George Platt Lynes
Two years later, when they came back to the US, the country was in the midst of the great depression. Cadmus was able to secure a position that paid him a subsistence wage of $32 a week working for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), a post-Depression government project.
The Fleet's In! Paul Cadmus,1934
Cadmus had been a 30 year old, mostly unknown, painter until the scandal over his painting, The Fleet's In! This 1934 homoerotic painting of sailors on shore leave was commissioned through his job with the PWAP. The painting outraged the Navy big shots and made headlines all over the country; its lurid sexuality and homosexual implications titillating American readers. Navy Admiral Rodman even called for it to be destroyed. He was quoted in a newspaper as saying, “this is an image that originated in the depraved mind of someone who has no experience or conception of the conditions in our beloved naval service.” In the same interview Cadmus replied, “admiral Rodman and the Navy brass who are so angry must govern an Alice in Wonderland navy dream world, they should take a stroll along the drive at night when the fleets in port"
Detail from The Fleet's In!
The Bath, Paul Cadmus, 1951
All of the publicity sent Paul Cadmus’ career skyrocketing, soon his works were in high demand. Cadmus even went so far as to thank Admiral Rodman for helping make his career.
Horseplay, Paul Cadmus, 1935
Being an extremely meticulous artist, Cadmus favored the time consuming medium of egg tempera painting. Where most artist would produce dozens if not hundreds of paintings a year, Cadmus averaged about 2 per year
Coney Island, Paul Cadmus, 1935
Paul Cadmus, by George Platt Lynes
Playground, Paul Cadmus, 1948
Cadmus had many famous admirers including Andy Warhol, Christopher Isherwood,Tennessee Williams, George Ballanchine and E. M. Forster, all of who were gay.
When Cadmus and his friends weren’t hanging out in the village, they were out on Fire Island, often posing for portraits.
George Tooker by George Platt Lyne
Self Portrait by George Tooker
During this period, Cadmus was involved in a love triangle with the artist George Tooker, who said, "I was looking for a relationship and my relationship with Paul always included Jared and Margaret French."
Paul Cadmus with George Tooker and Jared French
George Tooker, Paul Cadmus and Jared French on Fire Island
In 1964 Cadmus met the great love of his life, Jon Andersson, who would become his muse, his model and his partner for 35 years.
Self Portrait with Jon Andersson by Paul Cadmus
Cadmus gave up painting later in his life, but continued with drawing, printmaking and photography.Just 5 days short of his 95th birthday, Paul Cadmus passed away, due to old age, in at his home in Weston, Connecticut.
For more about Paul Cadmus, check out this interview from the Smithsonian:
Cadmus Interview, Smithsonian Inst.