Before the Dawn of Tom

Tom of Finland is unarguably the most well-known gay erotic artist of the 20th century, but paving the way for his all-balls-out art was a group of American artists who created a more subtle, coded visual style.




Paul Cadmus
December 17, 1904 – December 12, 1999

Of all on this list, Cadmus was the pioneer who crossed over to modern gay life in both his work and his personal story. His most famous painting was the bawdy and ironic The Fleet's In. That one painting caused so much furor that it cemented his place in art history. His work — scarce, as he often produced only one or two paintings a year in his arduous egg tempera process — was highly sought after. In his work we see the most direct influences on Tom of Finland in Tom’s renderings of urban parks peopled with muscular sailors, soldiers, and blue-collar workers. Friends with Lincoln Kirstein, George Platt Lynes, and Alfred Kinsey, Cadmus was at the center of a new society of talented modern gay men and women living more openly than ever before.

A short history of Cadmus's most famous painting from The Naval Historical Center.

1934: "The Fleet's In!" is painted by Paul Cadmus, an artist working for the Public Works of Art Project. The PWAP is combined into the WPA. The painting is selected by the WPA for inclusion in a show of PWAP art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The exhibition opens with the painting included. Following the publication of an adverse letter to the editor in The Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) and subsequent outcry, Secretary of the Navy Claude A. Swanson orders Assistant Secretary of the Navy Henry Latrobe Roosevelt to remove the painting from the show. It is either confined to H. L. Roosevelt's home, the "Navy Department brig," or the Secretary of the Navy's bathroom (depending on which story you believe).

1935(6?): When Assistant SecNav H. L. Roosevelt becomes ill, he has the painting sent to the Alibi Club, before his death in February 1936.

1944: The painting is the inspiration for Jerome Robbin's ballet "Fancy Free."

1980: A group interested in mounting a Cadmus retrospective threatens to sue the Alibi Club unless the painting is returned to public hands. The Navy takes title to the painting, though it may have remained at the Club on loan for a time.

1981: The Navy has the painting, now in poor condition, restored.

1982: The painting circulates to three or four venues in a Cadmus retrospective. It is the first public exhibition of the painting since 1934.

1983-1985: The painting spends some time in storage, but by 1985 it is on public exhibit at The Navy Museum, Washington Navy Yard, except when it is on loan to other museums.

1993: Female visitors to The Navy Museum on two separate occasions complained that the painting depicts sexual harassment.

1994: After returning from a loan, the painting is hung at the Navy Art Gallery, Washington Navy Yard, where, unless it is on loan, it is on public display.