Like Honore Daumier, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Georges Seurat and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec before him, Rouault was drawn to the circus. As a resident of Montmartre until 1912, before he moved to Versailles, Rouault frequented the local Cirque Médrano, which, as the Cirque Fernando was well known to the Impressionists, before it was taken over by its star clown Médrano in 1897. However, like Pablo Picasso, Rouault was more interested in the small travelling troupes of free spirits, the cirques forains, that passed through the city and eked out a living by performing in vacant lots or in the streets. In a 1905 letter to his friend Edouard Schuré, the artist wrote about a "nomad caravan, parked by a roadside, the old horse grazing on the meager grass, the old clown sitting in a corner of his caravan in the process of mending his sparkling and gaudy costume, this contrast of brilliant and scintillating objects, made to amuse, and a life of infinite sadness" (quoted in B. Dorival and I. Rouault, op. cit., p. 40).
Alongside his famous series of prostitutes, Les filles (see lot 127), Rouault painted in 1902-1909 numerous pictures of clowns, wrestlers, circus girls, and other characters found in these travelling circuses. In 1913 he returned to the theme and concentrated on the character of the acrobat, painting huge men with muscle-bound physiques.
One aspect is apparent: he is not interested in the anatomy of his acrobats. Why, in this case, create them? Clearly not for their expressions: their sketchy faces are without any. It is, in fact, for their gestures, or rather, for their gesture--always one, always the same. With one hand the acrobat holds his inclined head, his hand is on his other arm, bent at the elbow, which rests at the top of the forehead. Thus develops the arabesque, all the more powerful for the fact that its extremities join together, leading the spectator's gaze in an unending voyage. (ibid., p. 184)
Their gesture is monumental and heroic, and recalls the straining and rigid poses of Paul Cézanne's bathers. Nevertheless, in this series Rouault turned away from the Cézannesque blue tonality that had characterized his earlier works, and showed an inclination to use tinted grays and brown tones. The influence of Daumier becomes apparent (see lot 207); in December 1912 there was an auction of fourteen major works by Daumier, at which the Louvre belatedly acquired one of his paintings, the first to enter a French national collection.
The present work is closely related to another painting in oil and gouache of similar size, Acrobate XVI (Dorival and Rouault, no. 529), in which darker earth tones predominate. In this series Rouault experimented with combining the techniques of oil, thinned oil, gouache and tempera. In 1913 he wrote to André Suarès: "I have finally maybe found a craft which concurs with my needs and a medium of oil painting, neither brilliant nor shiny like steel, nor too dull, like a fresco, but sombre and serious" (quoted in ibid., p. 185).