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Paul Cadmus - Biography and Legacy

American Painter, Printmaker, and Photographer

Born: December 17, 1904 - Manhattan, NY
Died: December 12, 1999 - Weston, CT

Biography of Paul Cadmus


At The National Academy of Design Cadmus was a pupil of Charles Louis Hinton and later studied printmaking with William Auerbach-Levy.

Paul Cadmus was born in 1904 in New York City to a father of Dutch ancestry and a mother with a multicultural lineage - her family was originally from the Basque region in Spain, before immigrating to Cuba and finally settling in the United States. Two years after Paul's birth, his sister Fidelma was born. Despite their poverty, the children grew up in an artistic and creative environment, encouraged by their father Egbert, a commercial lithographer and watercolorist, and their mother Maria, a children's books illustrator (they'd met in art school).

Given his parents' support, Cadmus was sure of his career path from a very early age. In 1919, he left public school to join the National Academy of Design, where he stood out as one of the most talented students and received several awards. During his six years at the Academy, Cadmus received a comprehensive artistic education, including life drawing, printmaking, and etching, all skills that he would later utilize as an artist.

Early Training and Work

In 1928, Cadmus began working as a layout artist at a New York advertising agency, while continuing to take classes at the Art Students League. There, he met painter Jared French, a fellow student with whom he had a romantic relationship that became a lifelong friendship as well. French played a key role in Cadmus's artistic development and was a major influence on the artist throughout his career. In fact, French was the one who persuaded Cadmus to abandon his commercial work in order to pursue a career in fine arts. In 1931 the couple left for Europe on an oil tanker in hopes of finding a more stimulating environment for their work. The two artists settled in Mallorca, where Cadmus officially began his painting career. Although he painted some subjects from the Mediterranean island, most of his time was dedicated to American themes, including two major works: Shore Leave (1933) and Y.M.C.A Locker Room (1933). Over a period of two years, Cadmus and French toured France and Spain and later visited major museums and art sites in Germany, Italy and Austria. There, Cadmus saw the works of Renaissance artists such as Andrea Mantegna and Luca Signorelli that would inspire him throughout his career.

While in Europe, Cadmus received press clippings from his sister Fidelma about the Public Works of Art Project. By late 1933, the men were running low on money and decided to return to New York. He and French both applied to the WPA and continued working side by side in their studio on St. Luke's Place. Cadmus was accepted to the WPA in December, for which he produced the paintings The Fleet's In (1934) and Greenwich Village Cafeteria (1934).

The Fleet's In was selected for a WPA show at the Whitney Museum, before travelling to another exhibition at the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, DC. I t became a subject of controversy and was removed from the exhibition as the subject matter, drunken sailors on leave mixing with prostitutes, had offended the Navy. Because the painting had already been photographed, however, its reproduction was reprinted by the press, allowing Cadmus to capitalize on the media attention. By the mid-1930s, he had established himself as an up-and-coming young artist. Partly due to the controversy, his first solo show, held at Midtown Galleries in 1937, attracted a crowd of more than 7,000 viewers.

The year 1937 was also personally significant for Cadmus. His relationship with French changed after the latter had married Margaret Hoening, an artist they both had known from the Art Students League. However, Cadmus did not seem to hold any animosity towards Jared or Margaret. The three became inseparable, and Cadmus continued to share the studio on St. Luke Place's with French. In that same year, Cadmus also met Lincoln Kirstein. A philanthropist, writer, and art patron, Kirstein was an influential cultural figure in New York, best known for co-founding the New York City Ballet. Kirstein would not only become part of Cadmus's inner circle but also one of his biggest champions and patrons. In 1941, he became Cadmus's brother-in-law when he married his sister Fidelma.

Mature Period

The 1940s brought several changes to Cadmus's work. At the urging of Jared French, Cadmus switched to painting in egg tempera. The medium appealed to Cadmus as it had been used by the Renaissance masters he deeply admired: "When I found that medium, I loved it so much I didn't really want to use anything else," he said.

While his early paintings had been characterized as social satires, the new decade saw an expansion of his repertoire. This new cycle of paintings was inspired by the summers he spent on Fire Island with Margaret and Jared French. These smaller format works included delicate portraits, images of dancers, and beach scenes. Many of them became associated with Magic Realism, a term that was popularized in 1943 by the seminal exhibition "American Realists and Magic Realists" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Curated by Dorothy C. Miller with the assistance of Alfred H. Barr Jr.. and Lincoln Kirstein, it featured 16 paintings by Cadmus. Seen as a continuation of the American Realist tradition, Magic Realism emphasized the mysteriousness and uncanniness of everyday reality. Kirstein explained the unique nature of Magic Realism: "By a combination of crisp hard edges, tightly indicated forms, and counterfeiting of material surfaces such as paper, grain of wood, flesh or leaf, our eyes are deceived into believing in the reality of what is rendered, whether factual or imaginary." In Cadmus's case, many of these intimate scenes subtly expressed homoerotic elements, using a codified language to suggest same-sex desire.

The Fire Island Lighthouse. During the 20<sup>th</sup> century Fire Island was known as an area that provided a safe environment for gay and lesbian vacationers in a beautiful setting.

The summers spent on Fire Island led to further artistic experimentation for Cadmus. Along with Margaret and Jared French, Cadmus shot staged photographs of sensuous nudes with Margaret's Leica camera. The trio formed a photography collective known as PaJaMa, combining the first two letters of each of their names (Paul, Jared, Margaret). In 1944, he met George Tooker, a recently discharged Marine and painter who had resumed his studies at the Art Students League. Cadmus took Tooker under his wings and, along with French, taught him their method of using tempera. Soon, Cadmus and Tooker became lovers, and the younger artist rented a studio near the one Cadmus shared with French. Tooker became a fixture on Fire Island, posing for many of Cadmus's paintings and the PaJaMa photographs. Recognizing the common painterly affinity between Cadmus, French, and Tooker, art historian and curator A. Hyatt Mayor even referred to them as "the Fire Island School of Painting."

During the same period, Cadmus developed a keen interest in the writings of English novelist E.M. Forster. Their friendship began through correspondence, and the two met for the first time in 1947 when Forster visited New York. Cadmus cherished his friendship with Forster, expressing his admiration for the writer in the painting What I Believe (1947) - an homage to Forster's essay of the same title.

E.M. Forster, 1954. The writer influenced Cadmus and his circle to become an American iteration of the famous London-based Bloomsbury Group.

In 1949 Cadmus and Tooker, along with the Frenches, travelled to Europe. Cadmus and Tucker's relationship came to an end there. According to Cadmus biographer David Leddick, Jared was a source of tension between them and ultimately led to them parting ways. Leddick's account quotes Cadmus: "George wanted me all to himself, but that was not possible. I was not going to give up Jerry [Jared] in any case." After his split with Tooker, Cadmus maintained his close relationship with the Frenches. He divided his time between France and Italy from 1951-1953 before returning to New York, to the St. Luke's studio that he had shared with French. For most of the 1950s, Cadmus was surrounded by his close circle of friends. He spent the summers on Fire Island and visited Europe frequently.

Late Period

Around 1960, the Frenches decided to move to Europe permanently and sell the studio on St. Luke's Place. Subsequently, Cadmus moved to a studio on Remsen Street in Brooklyn Heights. In 1964, he was visiting Nantucket when he met Jon Anderson, a former cabaret star. The two began a relationship, and Anderson became Cadmus's principal model and muse. Most notably, Cadmus used Anderson for a series of male nude drawings that he worked on during the later phase of his career. He spent the latter part of his life living with Anderson in Weston, Connecticut in a studio that Kirstein had built for him. Cadmus and Anderson remained together for thirty-six years, until Cadmus passed away on December 12, 1999, at the age of 94, only five days before his ninety-fifth birthday.

The Legacy of Paul Cadmus

Paul Cadmus was one of the most controversial artists of the 1930s. His biting social satires challenged traditional morality, often prompting outrage and even censorship. Cadmus, with his uncompromising attitude, was able to capitalize on the media attention and establish himself as one of the leading artists of his time. His homoerotic iconography, as art historian Jonathan Weinberg pointed out, was coded and would've been understood among a knowing group of viewers, allowing a shared sense of enjoyment that operated under the radar of traditional culture. With the rise of Abstract Expressionism in the late 1940s, Cadmus and other figurative painters faded into obscurity. Despite changing trends, Cadmus remained true to himself, continuing to channel Old Masters in his technique, intricate compositions, and delicate treatment of the human body.

The post-Stonewall era led to a renewed interest in Cadmus's art. Media outlets and scholarship started to examine his works through the lens of sexuality and celebrated the gay artist as a role model and a major influence on Queer Art. For Cadmus, this newfound interest was met with some ambivalence. While he never hid his homosexuality, he rejected the concept of identity politics, stating that "gayness is not the raison d'être of my work." As art historian Philip Eliasoph explained, Cadmus's attitude can be attributed to a generational divide: "He pleaded to those engaged on the frontlines of militant gender politics [circa 1970s-1980s] to respect that he was from a generation for which reticence and discretion signaled an unspoken ethical code." Instead of addressing the homoeroticism in his works, Cadmus preferred talking more about his interest in the nude and the influence of Renaissance painting on his works. Scholar Richard Meyer, who wrote extensively about queer elements in Cadmus's art, offered a nuanced explanation: for someone from Cadmus's generation, "homosexuality [...] cannot be understood within the coherent, confident terms of what we now call gay identity." From today's queer theoretical vantage point, his draw toward the Italian Renaissance, his satirical view of American life, and his depictions of homoerotic and sensuous male bodies altogether form a queer sensibility outside of a specific identity or political message. It is instead an early iteration of a queer aesthetic.

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Content compiled and written by Naomi Kojen

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Paisid Aramphongphan

"Paul Cadmus Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Naomi Kojen
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Paisid Aramphongphan
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First published on 31 Oct 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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