What I Believe

Maker and role
Artist: Paul Cadmus, American, 1904-1999

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Tempera on panel
16 1/4 x 27in (41.3 x 68.6cm)
Credit line
Gift of Robert L. B. Tobin
Accession number
Object type
Further information
A 1938 essay by English humanist E. M. Forster inspired the title of this painting. Written during the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini, the essay calls for tolerance and goodness over violence and cruelty.

In What I Believe, two standing figures separate the worlds of good (left side) and evil (right side). Seated on the left are Paul Cadmus, who is drawing, and Jared French, a long-time friend and fellow artist. Standing behind them are French's wife, Margaret, and Forster. In the background, the man playing the flute with a cat on his head is Lincoln Kirstein, the artist's brother-in-law and a well-known art patron who started the American Ballet Company with George Balanchine. The artist's sister, Fidelma, who was Kirstein's wife, and herself an accomplished painter, rests her head on her husband's leg. Cadmus presents symbols of art, literature, music, and architecture as the world of good. In the center far distance, a beaming lighthouse symbolizes the Enlightenment.

In the foreground on the right, Death covers his face in horror as he descends into a freshly dug grave. On a jagged edifice rising above the mass of lethargic people, three military figures direct missiles beneath dark clouds.

Cadmus worked for more than a year on this complex egg tempera painting, which unlike oil paint, is fast drying and leaves no room for error.
Subject period


WE thoroughly enjoyed our visit to The McNay, you have a magnificent collection. This piece I find particularly wonderful and thought provoking. I especially like the way the artist has slipped a very subtle question mark into the clouds as if he is asking us, "what choice will you make?".

- James Smith

Posted on 08-03-2021 22:34:42

Obviously on LSD

- Mattie Gilmore

Posted on 23-03-2020 07:35:58