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Censorship, Scandal, and Queer Sexuality Make American Art History in Paul Cadmus’s The Fleet’s In 

Paul Cadmus, The Fleet’s In, 1934, tempera on canvas, 37 x 66 1/2 x 2 in. Courtesy of Navy Art Collection, Naval History and Heritage Command, 34-005-A.

In American Waters: The Sea in American Painting features an iconic work of LGBTQ+ art history with the painting The Fleet’s In (1934) by Paul Cadmus. Painted in 1934 as a commission from the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the image depicts a group of drunk and carousing sailors on shore leave in New York City in search of some debauchery.

Paul Cadmus, The Fleet’s In, 1934, tempera on canvas, 37 x 66 1/2 x 2 in. Courtesy of Navy Art Collection, Naval History and Heritage Command, 34-005-A.

Tightly clothed figures accentuating various parts of male and female anatomies, all rendered in what would become Cadmus’s trademark style of crosshatching and use of tempera paint, caused quite a sensation—a scandal, even—upon its near-public debut at the Corcoran Art Museum in Washington DC. After viewing a reproduction of the image in a preview for the Corcoran’s exhibition of PWAP artworks, retired Navy Admiral Hugh Rodman published a scathing letter in many newspapers.

“It represents a most disgraceful, sordid, disreputable, drunken brawl,” he wrote. “Apparently a number of enlisted men are consorting with a party of streetwalkers and denizens of the red-light district.”

He wasn’t wrong in his assessment, even if he might have worded it better.

Rodman instructed then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy Henry L. Roosevelt to remove the painting from the exhibition before the public could view it. Roosevelt reportedly kept it at his home until his untimely death in 1936. The painting then went to the Alibi Club, an elite Men-Only club in DC, where it hung above a mantle for more than four decades and was only seen by congressmen, Supreme Court justices, and other Washington insiders. There’s some irony here, of course, that the scandal wasn’t just due to a negative depiction of Navy sailors; The Fleet’s In captured a scene of obscenity through a decidedly queer eye, a gay gaze, at a time when homoeroticism in art was not openly discussed, much less depicted in a major government-sponsored art project.

Two figures in the painting are particularly noteworthy from a queer perspective. The blond-haired gentleman to the left of the painting offers visual codes that would have indicated his gay orientation; the slick hair, red tie, rouged face, plucked eyebrows, and black-rimmed eyes evoke the gay male “fairy” archetype widely circulated in films and popular culture of the day. The gentleman offers a sailor a Lucky Strike cigarette, suggesting a come-on.

Paul Cadmus, The Fleet’s In (detail), 1934, tempera on canvas, 37 x 66 1/2 x 2 in. Courtesy of Navy Art Collection, Naval History and Heritage Command, 34-005-A.
Paul Cadmus, The Fleet’s In (detail), 1934, tempera on canvas, 37 x 66 1/2 x 2 in. Courtesy of Navy Art Collection, Naval History and Heritage Command, 34-005-A.

The other figure represented stands just left of center wearing a red dress. Look closely: one can see an exaggerated sternum in the chest area, and the woman has an Adam’s apple, signaling she may be more than she seems. In the 1930s, matters of sexual orientation and identity were hardly ever discussed in public, nor in most private interactions, for that matter, outside of a close, inner circle.

Cadmus’s painting did not spark outrage in the Admiral for what it openly depicted—a scene of lusty, heterosexual encounters. The offense came from equally open, visual subtleties signaling a more sexually fluid set of behaviors. According to Bryan Martin’s essay on The Met’s blog, “art historian Jonathan Weinberg notes in Speaking for Vice (1993) that the general public may not have picked up on the coded homosexual iconography or history of The Fleet’s In!. The Navy, however, would have been well aware.”

The ensuing scandal erupted not so much as a response to the sexualized imagery of the painting but as a result of the purported government censorship of a public work of art. Rodman’s highly publicized rant against the artwork led to a media firestorm, which Cadmus himself helped to flame by providing images of the painting and interviews to outlets that ran the story. “I had no intention of offending the Navy,” Cadmus told The New York Times. “Sailors are no worse than anybody else. In my picture I merely commented on them—I didn’t criticize.” He also added:

“I don’t think admirals have much sense of humor, if they are as deeply offended as reported. By attacking my painting, naval officials have only called attention to it, whereas if they had said nothing about it, it probably would have been noticed only by the art critics.”

Cadmus stated later in life, “I owe the beginning of my career really to the Admiral that tried to suppress it.”

The Fleet’s In remained at the Alibi Club away from public view until a graduate student tracked the painting down in 1980 and alerted the General Services Administration. Simultaneously, the Whitney Museum of American Art was planning a retrospective exhibition of Cadmus’s career at that time and asked to borrow the painting. The questions of legal ownership of the work arose and the painted was returned to the Navy Art Collection where it remains to this day. As stated on the website for the Navy History and Heritage Command, “the painting has become the most noteworthy artwork within the collection and is often on loan to domestic and international museums.”

Come see this noteworthy historical painting in our temporary exhibition In American Waters: The Sea in American Painting, on view at Crystal Bridges through January 31, 2022.

 

For more information about the queer imagery and subtext as seen through a “queer eye,” along with more juicy details of this story, read this blog post by Bryan Martin from June 2021 found on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.

 

For further reading:

 

Written by Stace Treat, head of interpretation.