Coney Island

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Coney Island

United States, 1934
Paintings
Oil on canvas
32 7/16 x 36 5/16 in. (82.4 x 92.2 cm)
Gift of Peter A. Paanakker (59.72)
Not currently on public view

Curator Notes

Coney Island was the first painting Cadmus made after he ceased working for the federally sponsored Public Works of Art Project. It is typical of his paintings of the period in both theme and form. ...
Coney Island was the first painting Cadmus made after he ceased working for the federally sponsored Public Works of Art Project. It is typical of his paintings of the period in both theme and form. Cadmus viewed the prosaic activity of bathing on a beach in devastatingly satirical terms. Poking fun at the bathers’ carefree pleasures, Cadmus accumulated an odd assortment of bulging, burnt bodies. The bathers are oblivious to their ridiculous appearance and uncouth behavior. Swarming the beach, their bodies are strangely intertwined, their faces smiling inanely. Everything is exaggerated, the color verging on the garish to intensify their grossness. In the 1930s Cadmus used oil paint almost as if it were a graphic medium, consequently Coney Island looks more like a tinted drawing than a painting. His small, exacting brushstrokes impart a flickering quality to the surface, which intensifies the impression that the figures are in constant motion. Cadmus actually began to sketch the scene on Martha’s Vineyard, before he visited Coney Island. He was attracted to the Brooklyn beach because it offered him the opportunity to delineate the human figure with as little clothing as possible. Moreover, he considered the beach scene to be a classical subject. His treatment, however, is rather baroque. As was his friend REGINALD MARSH, Cadmus was attracted to the elaborate compositions of old master paintings. Coney Island, with its seminude figures arranged in complex groupings, their bodies twisted and in constant motion, was for Cadmus the twentieth-century version of a baroque allegorical composition. Cadmus claimed that his intent was not to be sensational, but when the painting was exhibited in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s second biennial, it suffered the same hostile reception as did his earlier The Fleet’s In!. The Coney Island Showmen’s League, a local trade group, denounced the painting as offensive and inaccurate and threatened a libel suit if the painting was not removed from the exhibition. According to the artist’s incomplete records, it seems that the painting was rejected from several annual exhibitions to which it was submitted soon after it was shown at the Whitney biennial, probably because of the controversy it stirred. In 1935 Cadmus produced an etching from a photograph of the painting in the hope that it would reach a larger public. In the etching the image is reversed but otherwise differs only in a few minor details (see Related Works).
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About The Era

Four years after the stock market crash of 1929, which triggered the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated the New Deal, a program of domestic reform meant to revive the econ...
Four years after the stock market crash of 1929, which triggered the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated the New Deal, a program of domestic reform meant to revive the economy and alleviate the problem of mass unemployment. Toward these ends, he established various new federal agencies, putting many more people to work to do the increased business of government. Thousands of artists were employed, most through the largest program, the Works Progress Administration. Although the government did not dictate the type of art that was to be produced, it did encourage the use of a representational style and American themes. As a result, most of the art created in the decade prior to World War II was humanistic in orientation.
Artists, writers, and philosophers of the period became obsessed with the social relevance of art. Although a small group of American artists did attack the societal ills of the nation (housing shortages, unemployment) and of the world in general (the rise of fascism and militarism), most adopted a more pragmatic and even positive attitude. American scene painters captured busy city dwellers on streets, in buses, at work, and at play. Occasionally artists infused an element of humor into the pathos of everyday existence, even in scenes that allude to the political disasters of the day. Regionalists were particularly fond of idealizing the past and aggrandizing the present accomplishments of the country. In fact, the myth of America as a country where everyone lives a pastoral, carefree existence emerged with new vigor in the art of the 1930s.
The diversity of the people also emerged as a strong current of social realism. Artists who were accustomed to working in their studios now looked beyond their immediate circles for models. Individuals of various races, professions, or creeds inspired some of the most moving portraits of the century and demonstrated the soul of the people.
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Label

Exhibition Label, 1997 ...
Exhibition Label, 1997 Cadmus was one of the most controversial American artists of the 1930s. His satirical perspective made people uncomfortable, and consequently reviewers sometimes questioned the decency of his rollicking scenes of New York City life. Coney Island, with its amusement park and beach on the south shore of Brooklyn, was a favorite destination of working-class people. Rather than glamorize laborers enjoying their day off, Cadmus poked fun at these beachgoers and their bulging, entangled bodies. They seem oblivious to their sunburnt flesh and the silliness of their activities. Coney Island met a particularly hostile reception when it was first exhibited. A businessman organization associated with the amusement park denounced the painting as offensive, resulting in its rejection from subsequent exhibitions. Cadmus’s meticulous painting technique – pigments applied with thin, pencil like strokes – enabled him to delineate minute detail. For example, the viewer can read the headline about Hitler in the newspaper held by the reclining man in the foreground. This subtle reference to the horrifying political developments abroad underscores the inanities of the beachgoers. Carved in wood, this simple frame was rubbed with pigment rather than gilded, a treatment that came into fashion during World War I, as gold became scarce.
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Bibliography

  • About the Era.
  • Eliasoph, Philip. 1981. Paul Cadmus: Yesterday & Today. Oxford, Ohio: Miami University Art Museum.
  • Barbara Einzig.  Los Angeles County Museum of Art Report, July 1, 1979-June 30, 1981.  Los Angeles:  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1982.
  • About the Era.
  • Eliasoph, Philip. 1981. Paul Cadmus: Yesterday & Today. Oxford, Ohio: Miami University Art Museum.
  • Barbara Einzig.  Los Angeles County Museum of Art Report, July 1, 1979-June 30, 1981.  Los Angeles:  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1982.
  • Price, Lorna.  Masterpieces from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Los Angeles:  Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1988.
  • Fort, Ilene Susan and Michael Quick.  American Art:  a Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection.  Los Angeles:  Museum Associates, 1991.
  • Morris, Anthony J.  2012.  Paul Cadmus and carnival, 1934: representing the comic grotesque.  American Art 26(3): 86-99.
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