Before the Dawn of Tom

Tom of Finland is unarguably the most well-known gay erotic artist of the 20th century, but paving the way for his all-balls-out art was a group of American artists who created a more subtle, coded visual style.



Tom of Finland’s first submissions to the underground gay magazine Physique Pictorial came in 1956. By the second half of the 20th century, censorship laws had relaxed and allowed artists like Tom greater freedom in depicting the nude male in art. But the first half of the century demanded that artists play it more subtly and coded. Often they destroyed their work of a more gay or erotic nature, or kept it under lock and key.

Here we look at the paintings from six of these artists through 21st-century eyes, and it’s hard to fathom not seeing the gay subtext in their work. One seems to even flaunt the male erotic figure in the most mainstream of all venues — The Saturday Evening Post.

And yet all these six artists were respected and collected, commercially viable producers for the pre-Kinsey crowd.