When the topic of government censorship of art is discussed, frequently the story of the painting by the artist Paul Cadmus for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) entitled "The Fleet's In!" is told. The fact that it was removed from an exhibit of WPA art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1934 is well known, but what happened to it afterwards is not. The following chronology is intended to provide background on this painting's place in American art history. This chronology is revised as of November 2015 to reflect recently discovered documents.
1934: "The Fleet's In!" is painted by Paul Cadmus in New York City, while 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 in Washington, DC. Prior to the exhibition opening, a letter to the editor by a retired Navy Admiral in The Evening Star (Washington), D.C. described the painting as offensive. During the 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 before public viewing begins. At that point, custody is transferred from the WPA to the US Navy. The painting 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?): Assistant Secretary of the Navy H. L. Roosevelt sends the painting to the Alibi Club, an exclusive all men's club near Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. H. L. Roosevelt dies suddenly in February 1936.
1944: The painting is the inspiration for Jerome Robbin's ballet "Fancy Free."
1980: Research into the location of the painting is untaken by a graduate student, who found the painting at the Alibi Club and notified the General Services Administration. At the same time, a group interested in mounting a retrospective of Cadmus' artwork requests a loan of the painting. This request sparks an exchange of correspondence between the Alibi Club and GSA regarding its legal custody. In November, 1980 the Alibi Club returns the painting to the Navy, from which it had been received.
September 1981 – July 1982: The Navy lends the painting to the Cadmus retrospective, which is scheduled for five venues continuing until July 1982. It is the first public exhibition of the painting since 1934.
February 1982: During a break in the loan schedule, the painting, which had been in poor condition, is restored.
July 1982: The painting completes its tour. After further discussion between GSA and the Navy, the painting’s repository remains with the Navy. News of the retrospective sparks more loan requests.
Since this time, the painting has become the most noteworthy artwork within the collection and is often on loan to domestic and international museums.