Paul Cadmus – Seeing the New Year In (1939)

“I like to have a Martini / Two at the very most / After three I’m under the table / After four I’m under the host”, Dorothy Parker allegedly quipped. Though these playful rhymes are, by all indications, misattributed, they fit right in in the life story of the American poet, who was known for her piercing, quick wit and intense love affair with alcohol.

Paul Cadmus - Seeing the New Year In
Paul Cadmus – Seeing the New Year In (1939), oil and tempera on linen mounted on panel | Private collection

It is Parker’s unverified remark that instantly comes to mind upon admiring Paul Cadmus’ Seeing the New Year In. The painting was actually inspired by Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 narrative poem The Wild Party. March’s poem tells the story of a raucous, orgiastic party taking place during the Roaring Twenties that doesn’t go as planned. Here’s a compelling snippet:

The noise was like great hosts at war
They shouted; they laughed;
They shrieked; they swore;
They stamped and pounded their feet on the floor;
And they clung together in fierce embraces,
And danced and lurched with savage faces
That were wet
With sweat;
Their eyes were glassy and set.

The complete lack of inhibitions which heavy drinking so amply provides is illustrated with a sobering realism and biting satire by Cadmus, an American artist who frequented the decadent parties of 1930s New York himself. Forget the glittering extravaganzas steeped in champagne that F. Scott Fitzgerald might have attended. Cadmus’ characters are crammed up in a decrepit one-bedroom apartment where their hedonistic celebration comes across more like a self-pity party than a New Year’s Eve festivity.

Displaying varying degrees of intoxication, from the drinking blues to utter unconsciousness, the ten figures portrayed – three women and seven men – fall short of welcoming the New Year with the cheerfulness they’re trying so desperately to exude. There is groping and dancing, and two gay men flirting in the doorway – they seem to be the most sober of the bunch. (Cadmus himself was gay and for a while he was in an open relationship with fellow artist George Tooker whom he introduced to painting with egg tempera.)

This jarring, sad scene is made to look even more grotesque by the colorful streamers unraveling like threads of fabrics amplifying the unkempt and disarrayed appearance of the bedroom. To the right, a bookcase and a crookedly hung copy of Vincent van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles reveal the hosts’ pretense to a higher intellect and sensibility. In another nod to art, we can also see a book on Cezanne and Noa Noa, Paul Gauguin’s Tahitian journal, on the bookshelf. To see more of the details you can zoom in on this black-and-white study print here.

I don’t know about you, but the more I look at this sad assembly of party-goers, partly inspired by Cadmus’ own experiences and encounters, the more I empathize with the hunched, seated man to the right, hiding his face in his hands. Now I fully believe Dorothy Parker when she wrote: “I hate Parties; They bring out the worst in me.”

I would hate to end this post and 2018 on such a dark note. I hope all your New Year’s Eve celebrations are nothing like Paul Cadmus’ painting. Here’s to a happy 2019!

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19 thoughts on “Paul Cadmus – Seeing the New Year In (1939)

  1. It’s a very impressive painting, whatever the subject. Amazingly complex composition and arrangement of figures, all in persuasive perspective, their anatomy convincing.

    My first thought on seeing this, as regards the content, was, “Who wants to start off the new year with a wicked hangover?” And I wouldn’t want to be the guy with his head in his hands because I fear he might be about to vomit.

    I think I don’t see it as negatively, at least at the moment. At least they aren’t home alone, passed out on the sofa, with empty bottles on the floor. It is out of control and unseemly, but perhaps that’s them cutting loose and being able to enjoy being that.

    I looked at the “study print” to study their expressions better. Wow! It’s really an achievement. Even the fabrics of the clothes are done exceptionally well. The streamers on the floor must be shaded just right to appear as they do, both light and solid. The bottom right corner has a broken glass (another rendering feat), and ashtray, and lots of cigarette butts. This really does signal excess and decadence. There’s also a book on Cezanne on the shelf.

    I guess for me I feel odd interpreting it because I can’t answer for how other people have fun. I can say that I don’t think I’d want to go to that party. Though if I’d had enough to drink first, things might look differently.

    Thanks for sharing this painting, which I’ve never see before.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Had to look him up. Watching a documentary about him and discovered his “7 Deadly Sins” paintings. Those could have been painting last year. He’s quite amazing. Also find his beach egg tempera paintings interesting, and there’s one of an architect from 1950 that’s fascinating. Of course he’s someone we never bothered with in art school, but we should have.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I love his Seven Deadly Sins series! I’m actually surprised you like Cadmus. Painterly wise, his background in advertising shows off and his works make me think of illustrations and caricatures one might have found in the magazines of those times (though far more intricate and grotesque). When he’s not dabbling in social realism, then his art turns homoerotic. His male nudes are great.

      Oh, and how did I miss that Cezanne book? Two or three of the letters in the title looked ambiguous to me. I wish there was a larger image of the painting to really zoom in and take in every little detail.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Oh, you have me figured out a bit. The caricatures are not my favorite, though, while looking at his painting about Italy, which is full of cruel caricatures, including one of himself, it occurred to me that he’s really (also) making a mockery of himself. One second thought, one can do that without including anyone else.

        Yes, some works are very illustrational, but I’m not above recognizing serious skill. And when he gets away from all that, he does some wonderful things with traditional media. Sure, the homoerotic stuff isn’t my cup of tea, specifically, but art that addresses the feelings, desires, personality, and so on of the artist is. I think he’s done an amazing job of realizing his particular vision.

        That is the thing I most appreciate about artists: their ability to manifest their own unique vision. He does that, and if it is not at all MY personal vision or orientation to the universe, all the better.

        Liked by 1 person

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