A genius and a gentleman.
One of the greatest privileges of my life has been a slender seven-year-long friendship with Paul Cadmus, a magnificent painter who was also the gentlest, kindest, strongest, and most generous man I've ever known. His courtliness reminded me of Lionel Trilling, another great man with whom I had a small friendship, but Cadmus's reliable radiance was unlike anything else I've ever encountered.
His life spanned the century, beginning with his birth on the upper west side of Manhattan in 1904 and ending suddenly (and peacefully) on December 12 at his home in Weston, Conn., five days before his 95th birthday. In between, his combination of meticulousness and exuberance made him one of America's greatest artists--a "magic realist" in more ways than one.
Everything about him shouted rectitude, from his ramrod posture to the piercing blue eyes of his magnificent face. He became an unlikely cause celebre in 1934, when the U.S. Navy went berserk over The Fleet's In! a glorious depiction of uniformed sailors that included prostitutes and a homosexual pickup. Because of that brouhaha, his first one-man show, at Midtown Galleries in Manhattan, attracted more than 7,000 visitors. ("I owe that admiral a very large sum," Cadmus remarked six decades later.)
Artists are frequently less appealing than the work they produce; George Orwell remarked famously that one ought to be able to remember "simultaneously" that Salvador Dali is both "a good draughtsman and a disgusting human being." Cadmus was the polar opposite of Dali; his personality was as luminous as his painting. He sincerely cared about other people, which may sound like a small thing but is actually quite rare among famous men. "He had a remarkable memory," says Josef Asteinza, an architect who lived down the road from Cadmus in Connecticut. "We brought scores of people there and he always enjoyed meeting them and he never forgot a name. Edith Sitwell's brother said, `A gentleman is never unintentionally rude,' but Paul said, `I don't think a gentleman should ever be rude under any circumstances.'"
Asteinza's lover, Randy Bourscheidt, remembers of Cadmus, "What you saw when you talked to him was a spiritual grace that derived from high moral decency and elegance of spirit--and from his own connection to art." Lincoln Kirstein, who cofounded the New York City Ballet, was his most important patron (as well as his brother-in-law), but his favorite friend--even a role model--may have been E.M. Forster, with whom he began to correspond during World War II. Both men were "formal and traditional moralists," as Kirstein put it. "I admire the virtues of long-term friendships and all the things that Forster writes about: tolerance, sympathy, and kindness," Cadmus told me. In 1949, Cadmus went to England and sketched Forster, while the author read the painter the manuscript of his unpublished gay novel, Maurice.
The relentless nonconformity of Cadmus's life was a metaphor for exactly what gay culture ought to be--proud, original, and unconcerned with the opinions of others. All of his most famous works were done in the complicated and time-consuming medium of egg tempera. He called himself a literary painter, and his passionate canvases became unfashionable with the rise of abstract expressionism in the 1940s. At the same time, his focus on the male form probably contributed to his neglect by homophobic curators at New York City's most important museums. But Cadmus never gave a damn. And by remaining faithful to his original vision, he produced paintings and drawings that are more likely to survive the test of time than the work of many of his more fashionable contemporaries. In 1995 he received a measure of vindication when the Metropolitan Museum of Art finally exhibited his Seven Deadly Sins, which Kirstein had donated to the museum.
The other part of the painter's life that made him a role model for practically every gay man who knew him was his remarkable relationship with his lover, Jon Andersson, a cabaret singer whom he met on a pier in Nantucket in 1964. The power of their collaboration reminded everyone of the possibilities of deep, long-term commitment between two people of the same sex; it also proved that even a large difference in age is no impediment to lasting love between two consenting adults. When they met, Andersson was 27 and Cadmus was 59, and for the next 35 years neither considered being with anyone else.
Right to the end, Cadmus had the energy of a man half his age. Eleven days before his death, the DC Moore Gallery held a (slightly early) 95th birthday party for him; for two hours he was on his feet, greeting all 300 guests by their first name--everyone from the painter Chuck Close to the Metropolitan Museum's executive vice president, Ashton Hawkins, who was a close friend of Cadmus's for the last decade of his life. "His extraordinary honesty and simplicity of manner made his life with Jon and his commitment to his art all of a piece," Hawkins says. "Spending time with Paul was a privilege and, for me, unforgettable."
Kaiser is the author of The Gay Metropolis, published by Harcourt Brace.
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|Title Annotation:||painter Paul Cadmus|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Article Type:||Brief Article|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2000|
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