When Paul Cadmus’s Homoerotic Military Painting Launched a National Scandal
The chorus of poorly behaved naval officers in Paul Cadmus’s 1934 painting The Fleet’s In! launched a political brawl that extended far beyond the frame. The work features a wild scene of debauchery: sailors who are either passed out from drinking, or smoking cigarettes and heckling well-heeled women. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. Navy did not appreciate the publicity. Before the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., could publicly display the painting in a show slated for that year, retired naval officer Hugh Rodman demanded its confiscation.
In a letter published by the Washington Evening Star, Rodman complained to Claude Swanson, Secretary of the Navy: “This is an unwarranted insult to the enlisted personnel of our Navy, is utterly without foundation in fact, and evidently originated in the sordid, depraved imagination of someone who has no conception of actual conditions in our service.” The paper also ran a photograph of Cadmus’s work. Publications around the country picked up both the image and the controversy. The painting became a succès de scandale. Soon, Cadmus was a star.
To be fair, Cadmus was primed for aesthetic success from a young age. The artist was born in 1904 in New York City to an illustrator mother and a commercial lithographer father. Cadmus enrolled in the National Academy of Design at 15 years old, and soon after graduation, he began working at an advertising agency. Yet adventure and fine art beckoned: In 1931, Cadmus began a tour of Europe with his friend and fellow artist Jared French (who also became his lover). During the two-year jaunt, Cadmus renounced his commercial ambitions.
Cadmus returned to the U.S. when his funds began to run out, and he became one of the first artists employed by the New Deal Program known as the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). This means that, ironically, the American government itself commissioned The Fleet’s In!. Simply tasked with making art that focused on the “American scene,” most of the participating PWAP artists veered toward more conservative figuration. Much of the work was soon forgotten, though two of the day’s major artists—Ben Shah and Grant Wood—created notable murals.
If The Fleet’s In! became notorious for its exaggerated sexuality, inebriated figures, and unflattering portrayal of military men, one potentially inflammatory element escaped public debate: its latent homoeroticism. Over the supine body of one drunken sailor, a well-coiffed blond civilian with a red tie and ringed fingers offers another sailor a light for his extended cigarette. The former character’s sartorial choices subtly coded him as gay, and the exchange signaled a come-on.
Throughout his career, Cadmus obliquely depicted homosexuality as he paid keen attention to the male form. In Jerry (1931), the artist painted his lover, Jared French, bare-chested in bed. The rumpled sheets suggest a recent sexual encounter, while the close-up perspective indicates an intimacy far beyond that of the typical artist-model relationship. The Bath (1951) features two nude men sharing a bathroom, with an emphasis on the toned musculature of their buttocks.
In a 1998 article for Art Journal, Richard Meyer wrote that Cadmus’s unique mixture of satire and idealization enabled him to depict homoeroticism as early as the 1930s—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.
If Grant Wood, painting in Iowa, had to conceal his homosexuality, the East Coast was more amenable to Cadmus’s preferences. French married Margaret Hoenig in 1937, and she not only allowed her husband to continue seeing his lover, but welcomed him on their Fire Island vacations. There, the lusty trio formed what became known as the PaJaMa photography collective, taking black-and-white shots out on the beach. They offered a Surrealist-tinged focus on the body and the geometries of their sandy landscape.
Throughout his painting career, Cadmus mostly stayed true to colorful, cartoonish scenes inspired by Renaissance paintings. As further evidence of his old-school predilections, he painted with the classical and time-consuming egg tempera technique. Meyer tells Artsy that Cadmus’s work underwent a major shift in the 1940s. While satire reigned throughout his paintings from the ’30s, the next decade brought work that was, according to Meyer, “more openly dreamy, informed by Surrealism and magical realism.”
In this vein, Cadmus painted the seven deadly sins as grotesque, fantastical creatures between 1945 and 1949. Threads resembling spaghetti seep from the torn stomach for nude, overstuffed Gluttony (1949). The androgynous Lust (1945) looks suggestively at the viewer, hands cupped around what seems to be electrified, genderless genitals. “He was aggressive in his work so he could be gentle in his life,” says Meyer. In his paintings, Cadmus “could register his judgments and his fears, pleasures, and desires as well as his stress in modern life.”
Cadmus considered human morality and its antitheses—among them consumption, excess, vanity, and thoughtlessness. Meyer met the artist before his 1999 death, and he remembers him as kind and humane. He believes “The Seven Deadly Sins” allowed Cadmus to push his work past satire and into the realm of monstrosity.
While Cadmus worked steadily within his instantly recognizable style, Abstract Expressionism began overtaking figuration as the art world’s dominant mode. In the 1940s and ’50s, critical favor turned towards the innovations of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and their coterie. If art history has continued to privilege their brand of gestural painting within narratives of American art, Meyer proposes an alternate story in which Cadmus has a more prominent place.
In his Art Journal article, Meyer reminds readers that Cadmus participated in 37 annual and biennial exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, “making him one of the most frequently exhibited artists in the history of that ongoing curatorial project.” When the Whitney’s new Renzo Piano–designed building opened in 2015, its inaugural show, “America is Hard to See,” featured Cadmus’s 1938 Sailors and Floosies. In the painting, three sailors cavort with heavily made-up women in a dark, ominous landscape. A sheet of newsprint lies on the ground, its headline revealing that thousands had just died in an air raid. Just four years after Cadmus painted his more-lighthearted The Fleet’s In!, global disaster loomed. The following year, European tensions would erupt into World War II. The painting suggests a more overtly political message than was usual for Cadmus, its subjects primed for fatal conflict.
Cadmus created a thick wood frame for the work, marked with what appears to be graffiti: stick figures, a drawing of a ship, and scrawled names and phrases (“mind your own damn business,” “you are a jackass”) surround the central image. “Usually, we think of the frame as the place where reality asserts itself,” Meyer says. In a Surrealist vein, Cadmus blurred fact and fantasy, extending the fiction of his painting beyond the canvas.
Despite the initial ire that accompanied Cadmus’s The Fleet’s In!, the work eventually found a home at a prominent gentlemen’s club. Back in 1934, at retired admiral Rodman’s command, Henry Latrobe Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy (and cousin of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) marched into the Corcoran, took the painting, and brought it to his own home. When he died in 1936, he bequeathed it to Washington’s Alibi Club, where it was enjoyed by an exclusive group of male politicians, Supreme Court justices, and other local elites. In 1980, the government reclaimed the painting, sending it to the Navy Department Art Collection at the Washington Navy Yard.
Throughout its tumultuous history, The Fleet’s In! has evolved beyond a wry depiction of bawdy sailors. Cadmus is now celebrated as a visionary within the gay art community, his painting a key work in the history of American censorship. When the Corcoran cancelled an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs in 1989 for its explicit homosexual content, the furor over The Fleet’s In! suddenly seemed like a sadly prescient moment—a reminder that history inevitably repeats itself.