Black and white print of freewheeling sailors and women dressed in tight, suggestive clothes.
The Fleet’s In, 1937, by Paul Cadmus (American, 1904-1999) 1981-115-9b

Paul Cadmus’s Queer Vision of America

Lauren Bradley

How a controversy around censorship launched the artist’s career—and fed a craze for limited-edition prints

In the Spring of 1934, Paul Cadmus, recently returned from a two-year trip abroad with his lover, Jared French, found himself amid a public skirmish with the United States Navy. His painting, The Fleet’s In!, was dramatically removed from the wall of a group exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. at the direction of a Navy General Admiral, who had spotted the painting advertised in a local newspaper. The canvas, created for the Public Works of Art Project, was criticized by the Navy for the depiction of American servicemen intoxicated and engaged with civilians of questionable reputation, sexual orientation, and gender identity. The uproar resulted in a media sensation that launched Cadmus’ career. It remains one of America’s most notorious cases of queer art censorship.

Indignant over the suppression in Washington, Cadmus was determined to keep The Fleet’s In! accessible to the American public who funded its inception. He decided to reproduce the painting as an etching on a metal plate, quipping, “They can tear up the canvas, but they will have a sweet time eating copper.” Working from the publicity photo of the painting he created an etching in an edition of 50. Cadmus denied that the work was meant to ‘[slander] navy morals’ but was rather a satirical representation of personal observations. The Fleet’s In! etchings, offered at nine dollars apiece, sold quickly. This was partly due to the controversy surrounding the painting, but also to the growing appeal of artists’ limited-edition original prints in the American collectors’ market.

The first federally funded government relief program for artists started in 1933. While the 1920s was a prosperous period for the country, artists often struggled to achieve financial success due to limited, elitist art markets and a lack of consistent funding. The establishment of these government programs not only allowed artists the financial support to continue working but laid the groundwork for the establishment of a truly American aesthetic. Limited-edition prints, only one facet of these New Deal programs, were versatile and relatively inexpensive to create and distribute to public institutions, making them widely available to Depression-era audiences.

The New Deal mandate to artists was simple: create work inspired by the “American Scene.” This vague directive allowed artists to portray the America they knew, resulting in a body of work as varied and diverse as the country itself. Private organizations and galleries also benefited from the democratization of the medium, establishing highly successful print subscription programs and direct artist commissions. The thousands of prints created in the United States during the 1930s have been referred to as “one of the richest and composite portraits of a nation in the history of printmaking.”

Shore Leave, 1937, by Paul Cadmus (American, 1904-1999) 1994-155-4

Cadmus, an experienced printmaker, was one of many artists who benefitted from the increased interest in the medium. The successful sale of The Fleet’s In! edition led Cadmus to issue another run of etchings using an earlier painting of similar subject matter, Shore Leave. This painting was the first of what the artist referred to as his ‘sailor pictures’ and was inspired by his firsthand experiences as a young man growing up in New York City. Cadmus lived near Riverside Park, an area of Manhattan known to be a frequent hang-out of off-duty soldiers, sailors, prostitutes, and gay men. He recalled being “amused” by the antics at Riverside Drive and reflected that he was envious of the carefree lifestyle the servicemen seemed to lead. These fond recollections of sailors on leave made them a natural choice of subject for his interpretations of the “American scene.”

Both Shore Leave and The Fleet’s In! feature rowdy sailors drinking, laughing, and flirting. The women in the compositions are outrageously playful and engaged. The protruding Adam’s apples, sinewy sternums, and muscular forms of some of the women are suggestive of male cross-dressing—a taboo act popularized in World War I P.O.W. camps that carried over in some circles of post-war society. All of the figures’ tight-fitting, suggestive clothing emphasized the sexualized energy in the piece.

Another element of the work, likely to go unnoticed by the general public, was the presence of a civilian male consistent with stereotypes of 1930s gay men: well-dressed, carefully manicured, with effeminate mannerisms. Cadmus was adamant that his works were truthful but acknowledged that it was in direct opposition to the image preferred by the American military. The U.S. military was highly sensitive to the reputation of American servicemen during the post-World War I era and actively engaged in engineering a public-facing image of machismo and high morality.

Paul Cadmus, c. 1940, by George Platt Lynes (American, 1907-1955) 2015-46-18

Years later, Cadmus reflected on this dichotomy: “I mean the sailors were human beings who went around with prostitutes and behaved drunkenly, and [the military] didn’t want that mentioned. They only wanted them known as heroes and—well, goody-goodies is what they wanted sailors to be. Which they’re not. I mean they weren’t in those days, anyway.”

Unlike The Fleet’s In! painting and limited-edition print, which are nearly identical, the Shore Leave etching is much grittier than the painted version; with palpable tension and more tawdry looking figures. This emphasis on stark reality and truth, in all its forms, became paramount in Cadmus’s art through the remainder of the 1930s.

In fact, prior to his first one-man show at Midtown Galleries in 1937, Cadmus published a credo on his artistic philosophy, stating: “I believe that art is not only more true but also more living and vital if it derives its immediate inspiration and its outward form from contemporary life.” He embraced the complexities of American life and depicted it unapologetically. This allowed individuals who were often sidelined or shunned by society an opportunity for representation. Cadmus’ dedication to truth was the impetus for the controversy surrounding The Fleet’s In!, but it also led to his success as an artist and his lasting contribution to the diverse “American scene.”

Lauren Bradley is a Fine Art Specialist at Rago | Wright | LAMA, where she specializes in prints and multiples. She initially became interested in editions while serving in the Print Department at Freeman’s Auction in Philadelphia. Prior to joining Rago | Wright | LAMA, Lauren worked as an independent appraiser with a specialty in fine art. Lauren has lectured at a variety of institutions, including the David C. Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, the Allentown Art Museum, and a variety of private organizations and art & antique fairs. She is particularly interested in the study and promotion of editions by marginalized artists.


“Art Row in Navy Surprises Painter.” New York Times, April 20, 1934.

Cadmus, Paul. Interview by Judd Tully, March 22–May 5, 1988. Transcript, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

Eliasoph, Philip. Paul Cadmus: Yesterday and Today. Exh. cat. Oxford, OH: Miami University Art Museum, 1981.

Kiehl, David W. “American Printmaking in the 1930s: Some Observations.” Print Quarterly 1, no. 2 (June 1984): 96–100, 105–11.

Rachamimov, Alon. “The Disruptive Comforts of Drag: (Trans)Gender Performances among Prisoners of War in Russia, 1914–1920.” American Historical Review 111, no. 2 (April 2006): 362–82.

This project has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.