Catherine Johnson-Roehr

Paul Cadmus lived most of his life in a world that did not acknowledge the rights of LGBTQ+ people to live their lives freely and openly. But that did not stop him from maintaining long-term relationships with men throughout his life; when he died in 1999, he had been with his partner Jon Anderson for 34 years. Cadmus was also determined to be true to his art, even when it made his life difficult or made his work unpopular. In addition to overt homoeroticism, he frequently depicted Americans in ways that showed both a fondness for his fellow citizens and a keen observation of their flaws.

In 1939 and 1940 Cadmus painted Stone Blossom: A Conversation Piece, a portrait of three of his friends from New York: from left to right, Monroe Wheeler, who at the time was director of publications at the Museum of Modern Art; writer Glenway Wescott; and photographer George Platt Lynes. The men had been a romantic threesome for years, and Cadmus shows them enjoying a lazy summer day at Stone Blossom, their country house in New Jersey, a place away from the city where they could relax and live their lives in the open—literally. In New York, they had to be on guard, as jobs could be lost and reputations and lives ruined if their sexuality and unconventional relationship became public knowledge.

Detail of a painting by Paul Cadmus showing a depiction of George Platt Lynes lying beneath a tree
Paul Cadmus, Stone Blossom: A Conversation Piece (detail), 1939–40. Oil and tempera on linen on pressed wood panel. Juliana Cheney Edwards Collection and Seth K. Sweetser Fund. Art © Estate of Paul Cadmus/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

By adding the subtitle, A Conversation Piece, Cadmus playfully refers to a genre that was popular in 18th-century England—wealthy landowners commissioned artists to paint their family portraits outdoors, posed in front of their impressive houses and vast estates. Here the trio is arranged at the base of a tree in a pyramidal composition taken from Old Master paintings. But the scene is contemporary, with the men surrounded by the latest magazines and newspapers, still connected to the urban world they’ve temporarily left behind. Even with its challenges, New York was their chosen home, where they found acceptance and support within a tight community of friends and colleagues. During Pride Month, as always, I celebrate this remarkable circle of artists, writers, dancers, actors, art collectors, and patrons who contributed so much to American culture in the mid-20th century.  

Detail of a paintingby Paul Cadmus showing a depiction of Glenway Wescott
Paul Cadmus, Stone Blossom: A Conversation Piece (detail), 1939–40. Oil and tempera on linen on pressed wood panel. Juliana Cheney Edwards Collection and Seth K. Sweetser Fund. Art © Estate of Paul Cadmus/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Detail of a paintingby Paul Cadmus showing a depiction of Monroe Wheeler reading a magazine
Paul Cadmus, Stone Blossom: A Conversation Piece (detail), 1939–40. Oil and tempera on linen on pressed wood panel. Juliana Cheney Edwards Collection and Seth K. Sweetser Fund. Art © Estate of Paul Cadmus/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

 

Author

Catherine Johnson-Roehr is senior interpretive planner, Interpretation.