Entering the world of human beings plunges one immediately into a mixture of emotions....but whether uplifting or disgusting, these reactions spring from a vital source.
Paul Cadmus, Credo, 1937
Paul Cadmus was born in New York in 1904 to Egbert Cadmus and Maria Latasa. His father was a commercial lithographer and watercolorist and his mother was an illustrator of children’s books. With their own artistic backgrounds, Paul’s parents encouraged his and his sister’s artistic skills from an early age. In 1919, Paul left high school and entered the National Academy of Design, at age 15. He studied initially with Charles Hinton, learning to draw from plaster casts, which prepared him for life drawing class. Two years later, he received a bronze medal from the Academy for excellence in the discipline. Cadmus began to study printmaking under William Auerbach-Levy in 1923 and was soon exhibiting his work and illustrating for the weekly book review section of The New York Herald Tribune. Throughout his studies, he won numerous scholarships and prizes for his academic achievements and talents.
During the years of 1928 to 1931, Cadmus worked as a layout artist for an advertising agency in New York, while continuing sketching classes taught by Joseph Pennell and Charles Locke. It was through these classes at the Art Students League that he met Jared French, a fellow student who would become one of the most important influences on Cadmus’ life and practice. They had a close friendship as well as romantic relationship. French encouraged Cadmus to pursue his career as a fine artist and after a few years they decided to travel to Europe together and follow this path. The two settled in Mallorca where Cadmus began his painting career. Most of his paintings were dedicated to American themes. Two major works of this time were Shore Leave, 1933 and Y.M.C.A. Locker Room, 1993.
Cadmus and French toured Europe over the next two years visiting major museums and art sites. During this time, Cadmus was exposed to the works of Andrea Mantegna and Luca Signorelli that would inspire him throughout his life. In late 1933, the two men would return to New York and apply to the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Cadmus’ created paintings for the WPA including The Fleet’s In, 1934 and Greenwich Village Cafeteria, 1934, the first sparking controversy when retired Navy General Admiral Hugh Rodman ordered it be removed from an upcoming exhibition at the Corcoran Art Gallery. The painting’s controversial subject matter and mentions in the press provided Cadmus with some media attention. He was now an established up-and-coming artist.
In 1937, Cadmus experienced a significant change in his personal life; Jared French married a mutual friend and artist, Margaret Hoening. The three became inseparable. That same year, Cadmus met another person who would join his inner circle and family, Lincoln Kirstein. A co-founder of the New York City Ballet, Kirstein was influential in New York’s culture. He was one of Cadmus’ biggest advocates, and a loyal patron, who would later marry his sister. Cadmus’ work began to mature in the 1940s with the change to egg tempera. His work during this period was inspired by time spent on Fire Island with Margaret and Jared. He began to paint smaller format works, portraits, paintings of dancers and beach scenes – many became associated with Magic Realism. These intimate scenes by Cadmus contained homoerotic elements and desires. He began to further explore these themes with photography of nudes. Working closely with Jared and Margaret on these works, they formed a collective known as PaJaMa. The collective met George Tooker in 1944, and soon he was an integral member of their group. Cadmus and French taught Tooker about egg tempera. Cadmus and Tooker became lovers and Tooker can be seen posing for many of Cadmus’ paintings and PaJaMa’s photographs during this time.
The four of them travelled to Europe in 1949, where the relationship between Cadmus and Tooker ended. Cadmus did not want to concede to Tooker’s wishes of having him all to himself, leaving Jared behind. Cadmus continued to keep a close relationship with the Frenches. In the early 1960s, Jared and Margaret moved to Europe permanently and Cadmus relocated to Brooklyn Heights. He met Jon Anderson, a former cabaret star, in 1964 and the two formed a relationship, Anderson becoming Cadmus’ muse and primary model. He used Anderson for a series of male nude drawings during the later years of his career. The two remained together for thirty-six years until Cadmus’ death in 1999.
Paul Cadmus challenged the societal norms of the time with his work, becoming one of the most controversial artists of the 1930s. His homoerotic iconography was visible but presented in a coded fashion that only some would understand. He was a master of the figurative form, creating intricate and beautiful compositions of people. He is best known for his erotic depictions of nude male figures, his queer aesthetic and social satire. His work outraged people, prompted censorship, but most importantly provided his viewers with a truthful look into his view of life.
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