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“The Fleet’s In!” by Paul Cadmus

The Fleet's In | Paul Cadmus

“The Fleet’s In!” 1934, oil on canvas, 30×60 inches

In the spirit of our recent and abbreviated Fleet Week, here’s a look back to a famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) 1934 depiction of sailors on shore leave. Paul Cadmus’s “The Fleet’s In!” is a raucous and exuberant depiction of sailors carousing with civilians along New York’s Riverside Drive, which was a well known off-duty sailors’ stomping ground.

The composition has Renaissance roots, suggestive Mantegna or Leonardo. Figures push and pull towards and away from the viewer, and the syncopated rhythm of the grouping heightens the tension. Originally scheduled for exhibit in Washington’s Corcoran Art Gallery, it was pulled at the last minute when the Navy got a glimpse of it. Then Secretary of Navy Claude Swanson declared that the painting “represents a most disgraceful, sordid, disreputable, drunken brawl” and insisted that it “originated in the sordid, depraved imagination of someone who has no conception of actual conditions in our service.”*

Although less overtly homosexual than Cadmus’s earlier “Y.M.C.A Locker Room,” it still fell within the Navy’s definition of “moral turpitude.” Since the painting was completed on a Public Works of Art Project grant, the government had final say. The painting was removed from the exhibit and kept under wraps for decades. As a result, the only public view was through photos published in the newspapers, until a Cadmus Retrospective in 1981. The Navy subsequently had the painting restored and placed it on display at the National Museum of the United States Navy, where it resides today and is one of the highlights of the collection.

“I owe the start of my career to the Admiral who tried to suppress it. I didn’t feel any moral indignation about those sailors . . . but I always enjoyed watching them when I was young. I somewhat envied the freedom of their lives and their lack of inhibitions. And I observed. I was always watching them. I didn’t know them personally, I was not going after them or expecting any relationship with them, but they were fun to watch, and I watched them a great deal.”

 —  from “Paul Cadmus: Enfent Terrible at 80” a David Sutherland Film

Time, April 30, 1934