Paul Cadmus, “Gilding the Acrobats”. 1935, Tempera and Oil on Masonite, 93 x47 cm., Metroopopitan Museum of Art, New Yourk”
Paul Cadmus is best known for his erotic depictions of nude male figures, charged with satire, social criticism, and a strongly idealized sexuality. Cadmus first gained recognition for his 1934 painting “The Fleet’s In”, where the controversy of a group of sailors he pictured carousing among prostitutes and homosexuals inspired a public outcry. Cadmus’s work is informed by themes of surrealism, compositions of the Renaissance era, the Neo-classical works of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres with their expressive distortions of form and space, and the sharp, figurative verisimilitude of Magical Realism.
However, Cadmus’s greatest influence was from fellow painter Jared French with whom he had a life-long relationship, studying and traveling extensively. French instilled within Cadmus the traditions of the old master painters such as an egg tempera technique that became an integral part of Cadmus’s process. French’s influence also furthered Cadmus’s drive to transcend these methods and define his own artistic legacy.
A renowned satirist, Cadmus was one of the most accomplished draftsmen of the twentieth century. Featuring a circus acrobat who, with help from two companions, covers his muscular body with gold radiator paint, “Gilding the Acrobats” reenacts literally the experience of painting the figure with thinly veiled homoeroticism. In an era when homosexual behavior was criminalized and homoerotic imagery was intensely policed, Gay artists like Cadmus and Richmond Barthé turned frequently to circus performers and athletes as the few socially permissible subjects that offered the opportunity to lavish attention on the male body.