Paul Cadmus (1904-1999) is recognized as one of the first contemporary artists to chronicle gay life. Pushing the envelope with his depictions of naked and muscled male physiques, museums consistently rejected his work because of its gay themes.
In the 1930s, Cadmus worked for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the first of the federal art programs conceived as part of the New Deal during the Great Depression. He created paintings for a planned PWAP exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. One of these works, The Fleet’s In, is a provocative depiction of U.S. Navy personnel carousing with women dressed like prostitutes. It includes a subtle homoerotic image of a sailor flirting with a civilian man offering him a cigarette, while another sailor lies draped across them. The painting generated controversy, causing the Navy to remove it from the exhibition. The scandal brought the artist national attention.
At the Smithsonian's American Art Museum hangs the striking Night in Bologna, a dark comedy of sexual tensions played out on a stage of shadowy arcades. In the foreground, a soldier on leave throws off a visible heat that suffuses the air around him with a red glow. He casts an appraising look at a worldly woman nearby, who gauges the interest of a man seated at a café table. The gawky tourist is unaware of her attentions, and looks longingly at the man in uniform. Cadmus left the outcome unclear because he was more interested in the tangle of human instincts than in tidy resolutions.
In a lengthy oral history for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Cadmus said that after 50 years as a painter, he was happy with the trajectory of his career, though he had never achieved lasting fame or a consensus of critical appreciation. He quoted a line from one of his favorite painters, the French neoclassicist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. "'People say my paintings are not right for the times' or something like that," Cadmus recalled. "But then he says, 'Can I help it if the times are wrong? If I'm the only one that's right, it's all right.'"