[Editor's Note -- the following is a forum of Adam Sutcliffe's essay. When I correspond with people I do so with the anticipation of making much of it public. It's one of the most important things I do as an editor, and is one of the most important strengths, I feel, of this web site.] 

[View Forum]

From: Adam Sutcliffe
Adam.  Sutc  liffe@five.tv 
Date: Monday, July 16, 2001 


I have just completed a draft article about SARGENT''s Dr Pozzi at Home suggesting this to be one of the most blatant depictions of amorality in Western Art. In view of your web discussion about Sargent and sexuality I would be most interested in your response. . . forgive the extreme nature of some of the text. Thank-you. 

 Adam Sutclifffe 

From: Natasha 
Date: Thursday, July 19 

Thanks for sending your article. I loved reading. It was very well written. I'm not exactly sure who the intended audience is for this article, so I'm not sure exactly sure how to respond to this. The parts that interested me the most were the factual information which you didn't source or footnote. Interesting, to say the least! If I might just add a helpful hint. If you plan on writing something that is ( for lack of a better word) "controversial" or "salacious", it might help if you document where you are getting your information -- is it Trevor Fairbrother? 

If you choose to contend that Sargent himself wished to make Dr. Pozzi into a symbol of a clitoris with phallic images etc etc, it would fly in the face of anything else Sargent ever painted. There are no other examples! None! Zippo! He clearly was NOT into symbolism -- not into any subtle type that you're talking about. In fact (with the exception of the Public murals) Sargent was from a school of thought that flew in the face of Romantic symbolism. Like Monet it was about what one sees with the eye. The "Art" was in life itself, "art for Art sake", and it didn't need to be added to. Sargent's art IS penetrating, telling and revealing of his subjects (this is true) BUT there is nothing there hidden that he deliberately painted with double entendres. What he gives us is the revealing nature of a person's spirit, their soul, and is as much impossible to explain in words what Sargent has done to capture the essence, as it is to explain what you see when you look deeply into a person's eyes 

There is, of course, the Boston public library murals which are filled with symbolisms; but these are all matter-of-fact, "there you have it," "there it is" -- not hidden or disguised. In fact, Sargent's biggest critic, Roger Fry, claimed that he painted nothing more than what he saw.  

As to your interpretation of the painting: I LOVED IT, I enjoyed the read, but I don't agree with it. I strongly disagree with it. That's neither here nor there. As far as I'm concerned, a painting takes on its own life -- beyond what the artist intended and therefore what you see in it (or anyone else for that matter) is as legitimate as my own opinion. That of course is its weakness, it's simply an opinion, but what makes interpretation so much fun and highly personal. It's purely an individual thing. 

I would teasingly submit to you, Adam, that if you find the painting to be the most blatant depiction of amorality in Western Art, it's not to Sargent you should look, but to yourself. 




From: Adam Sutcliffe
Adam.  Sutc  liffe@five.tv   
Date: Friday,  July 20, 2001 

Dear Natasha 

Thank-you so much for your considered response! From the way you write I would say you have the natural gifts of an excellent teacher - and now you  have me wondering what work you do and how you came to create your web site. 

I have rattled on rather a lot in this email - apologies. I promise I won't keep bombarding you - but your note has stimulated me to think and write a bit more... 

The intended audience is uncertain. I felt compelled to set down some thoughts in my head - thoughts which I thought had not been expressed in the  same way might be of interest both to the casual art gallery visitor and maybe even to the academic as well. Like you I feel that particular viewpoints should be expressed - I was stimulated, perhaps above all, by the thought of whether I was alone in seeing something disturbing and very sexual in "Dr Pozzi at Home". 

By the way I'm not even convinced I see it (ie something disturbing and very sexual) either! To me its more of a possible interpretation that I wanted to set down to see if it was "sustainable" in argument. I think it is - although, at the end of the day, I am not wholly convinced by the argument I put forward. No - I certainly do not think the portrait to be one of the most blatant depictions of amorality in Western Art - that was mere "advertising puff" to try and provoke interest. Neither do I think there was conscious symbolism on the part of Sargent ... but (......I'll come back to this later!!). 

I'm afraid I don't know who Trevor Fairbrother is or what he has written - please can you fill me in. My sources are only secondary and not fully  authenticated. The basic information about Pozzi comes from a catalogue for the major SARGENT exhibition at the Tate in 1998 (when I saw the work) edited by Elaine Kilmurray and Richard Ormond - but then they acknowledge about 40 "Sargent scholars" as contributors and the text accompanying Dr Pozzi is not footnoted. More information on Pozzi came from "Interpreting  Sargent" by Elizabeth Prettejohn which was published by the Tate at the same time. 

I trawled the internet for more information and came across a few biographical references to Pozzi. Most interestingly I came across references to a three volume "treatise" he wrote on gynaecology and to instances of modern gynecological experts making occasional reference back to Pozzi's techniques. As someone grossly ignorant on the subject I wanted to know whether "bi-manual" examination was something regarded as so unorthodox as to be perverse. This would have fitted my line of thought - but from what I read I could not be certain. Bi-manual treatment is still  taught where one hand applies pressure from outside the body (eg to stop haemoragging) but Pozzi's technique was used for overine examination. I had to conclude that I could not justify alleging any sexual impropriety from this technique alone (although I was able to establish he would not have  used gloves). The evidence suggests that Pozzi was indeed highly regarded in his field - he was a teaching professor. Interestingly he also advocated  liberal application of cocaine in the treatment of some gynaecological disorders - again one could present this in a "salacious" way but since cocaine was not uncommonly used as a form of pain reliever in the late 19th century I think it would be wrong to bring in any moral judgment in this  regard. I was left concluding that the "allure of Pozzi" and the "frisson" added to his love affairs by the fact of his profession combined with his  "diabolically" good looks (all referred to by other writers) was about as far as I could go in suggesting "perversion" on Dr Pozzi's part. 

He actually seems to have been a talented and cultured man. One book (the catalogue) makes tantalizing references to accounts of his group "The League of the Rose" being "decadent" and linking this to his readiness to give demonstrations of his bi-manual techniques. After searching on the web I  could not come up with any sources or more information on this - my reference to the name of the group being a "clear acknowledgment of the  clittoris" is, I regret to admit, speculation on my part. (Though not entirely without precedent - an erotic novel of the age attributed to Oscar Wilde ("Teleny") uses repeated "rose/clittoris" similes). Dr Pozzi's group COULD have been a group for keen gardeners ... but instinct says otherwise. 

As you can see if I were to submit my article for publication I would have to do quite a lot of further research - but I suspect much of the framework would hold up. Certainly I am quite proud of my thoughts on the "Dorian Gray" connection. I have never read any speculation of what works of art  Wilde may have had in mind when writing Dorian Gray - no doubt they exist. I wonder whether Dr Pozzi has been put forward before. Certainly the idea is original to me - but it may also have occurred independently to others. What I was pleased to discover was that (a) Pozzi was first exhibited in London; (b) Sargent moved to London shortly thereafter; (c) Pozzi was not sold of or disposed by Sargent at that time - logically it would have been a this home/studio; (d) Wilde was writing articles in the London press about current art movements and had established himself as a fountain of opinion on art; (e) by May 1884 Sargent was sufficiently close to Wilde to be one of  a limited number of guests at his wedding to Constance Lloyd. (e) I discovered almost by accident - going through Wilde biography sites on  the net and seeing a reference to wedding guests. 

Then I looked through DORIAN GRAY again. The picture is a "realistic" portrait - full length - by the greatest society portrait painter of the day - the work is instantly acknowledged as one of the most important paintings of the age........ and then of course there is the convoluted moral story and the links between the subject's morality and his  representation on canvass.... 

It all seemed too deliciously right - so long as one can see Pozzi as a sort of hedonistic vain arrogant young man who is prepared to guard his beauty at  all costs. It is not a HUGE leap to make. Pozzi in reality was probably more cultured and "valuable" as a person than that - but the gossip-borne  reputation of Pozzi may have come pretty close. And now we know that Wilde must surely have seen (and probably admired!) the Pozzi portrait at the home of his friend, John Singer Sargent, during a period when "The Picture of Dorian Gray" was forming in his mind... There may be other, better  candidates for pictures that may have inspired "Dorian Gray" - but I think Dr Pozzi goes a long way and is very interesting on that basis alone. 

Finally I would like to come back to that "but" I left hanging several paragraphs ago. I said that I agreed that Sargent was not into conscious symbolism .. but - : 

but in every Sargent portrait there are a thousand "design" elements. By this I mean elements that have involved an element of choice, intention, or  "feel" on the part of the artist. The way fingers are held - for example - I cannot accept that the fingers just lay as they were naturally and Sargent merely "painted what he saw". No - the power of his portraits and the insights provided by them comes from the way in which elements are presented to the viewer by Sargent. I referred in the article to "the exposure of flesh and musculature, the weight and significance of apparently unremarkable pieces of furniture or jewellery - there is a purpose and  significance in everything included - and even in the very omissions from what appears on the canvass. A shoulder strap - a coat the carvings on the  almost hidden leg of a table - nothing was incidental". These various elements refer to different pictures I saw in London (Madame X for the  shoulder strap (especially as originally painted!) and the carvings on the side table next to her - and her musculature; the portrait of W Graham Robertson re the coat (Sargent apparently protesting that the coat WAS the picture when Robertson wanted to take it off because of the heat!); but there are many more I could have cited - the extraordinary compositions of "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit" and "Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron" (over 20 sittings!); the care he lavished on "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" - the haunting eyes and look of Miss Elsie Palmer; etc etc 

I was frustrated to read Anthony Bertram quoted in the Oxford Companion to Art as saying "All that was wrong with Sargent was that he gave his sitters no soul and his pictures no pictoral meaning". Was he looking at the same pictures as I??!!!! Do our eyes operate differently?? How can you try and  justify something that jumps out as being so patently wrong to my eyes??!! 

Anyway - all I'm trying to say is how much, in my view, went into a Sargent picture. That must have included many consciously chosen elements - but also many many elements that Sargent's judgement and "feel" dictated. And I would argue that many of these "feel" elements might have sprung from sub-concious thoughts or feeling about the subject of the portrait. 

Can't we divine something of what Sargent thought of Dr Pozzi from the way he is portrayed? Surely the answer is yes. Why is the picture THAT colour? Was this deliberate or sub-conscious symbolism? I do not accept that he turned up and found Pozzi in a red gown in a red room!!!!!! And it is SUCH a red - not a full natural red - but a glowing, alive, alluring red. If there was no conscious flesh-pleasure-allure-alive symbollism intended then I defy you to insist that there was no sub-conscious sybollism at work here! I am sure there are other elements of sub-conscious symbollism at work too - the angle of the light - the glow as if from a fire - the angle from which we  look up to Pozzi - the very dimensions and size of the portrait - again and again there are "design" elements with inescapable elements of symbolism  attached - whether intended or not.  

My own view is that Sargent was attracted to Pozzi - not necessarily (although possibly) in a sexual way - in a way which suggests he thought of Pozzi as belonging to a different or higher breed of men. But at the same time what is he saying with this colour .... it is shouting a message (whether from Sargent's conscious or sub-conscious I cannot tell) to us -  but I can't understand it. 

Maybe Oscar Wilde would have been tuned in to the message the colour was shouting. in Dorian Gray he wrote: (I've lost my quote: its something like "The only colour nowadays in art ... is sin") 

Thank-you Natasha for reading this far. Are you still so adamant that there is no symbollism in Sargent's portraits? Did Pozzi just turn up on a very red day??!!!!! I would love to hear back from you.  

BTW I'm off to China tomorrow so apologies if you don't hear anything back from me for a while. 


(I'm an intellectual property lawyer by the way) 

From: Natasha 
Date: (much too delayed) 

Dear Adam, 

What you have written is very remarkable. In fact, if you will allow me to back off a bit from my original statement, I think you will find that we are not far from total agreement -- or is it that your eloquent and razor sharp mind has just turned my opinion?  


In fact, you have written it so well, that I'm not sure that it even needs a response from me, though I do it because you've requested my thoughts -- I just think sometimes: what possibly could I add, and are my additive thoughts always necessary? 

As far as I know, you are the very first person to attribute Oscar Wilde's "Dorian Gray" to Sargent's Dr. Pozzi. I Love it! You should in deed be proud! That's an amazing observation at the very least it is a  delicious possibility with some wonderful circumstantial evidence. Without a doubt -- in my mind (and now that we can all look back with 20/20 hindsight, thanks to you) how can we not think of Dorian Gray and Pozzi almost in the same breath. That's what is so much fun about all of this. It is also what I was talking about in my first letter when I wanted you to footnote and source were you were getting all this from. In fact, if you ever revisit this essay again for some other publication, I would encourage you to mesh both your article and your subsequent  letter together into one, the two together leads to a very strong piece of work. 

The reason why I asked about Trevor Fairbrother, is that he, if my memory serves me correctly made a point of connecting Oscar Wilde to Sargent for support to his assertion that Sargent was gay, and he underlined Wilde's persecution for his sexuality (when he went to jail for immorality) was the reason for Sargent's own continued closeted nature -- in his opinion. He also, again if I remember right (I wish I could tell you exactly where I read this) made the point that Sargent was attracted personally to Pozzi -- so that is why I mentioned his name, but I don't think that he went as far as to say that in Wilde's case, the character Dorian Gray was influenced if not outright based on Pozzi. That my friend, is your find and it is a gold nugget to be sure!!! 

You are so correct, of course, everything Sargent did from the choice of clothes, the setting, the supporting furniture, the posture, everything is a deliberate image that Sargent wanted to express. I don't think either that he just happened one day to find Pozzi in a red robe on the day he painted him. No, this was clearly intentional on Sargent's part -- no question about it. The red is very much a statement by the artist -- now the argument is: what statement exactly was he making?. And it is here that personal interpretation comes in, but these are just opinions on our part. What I meant in my first letter, is that I don't think Sargent sat down with his brush in the bedroom of his subject, adjusted his vantage, and began to paint with a cognitive idea of forming Pozzi's robe into the folds of a woman's labia, or clitoris, that the man himself was to become his own ideal for a phallic image; nor that his tassels from the robe were to hang as a metaphor for the man's testicles. It is THESE sort of symbolic subtle double meanings that don't have precedence in any of Sargent's other work. You are on much stronger ground, in my opinion, if you leave those sort of ideas towards the realm of speculation of Sargent's subconscious, as I sort of did in my piece on Daughters of Edward Darley Boit and as you later did in your subsequent letter -- your case immediately became much stronger, in my opinion. 

But I want to qualify these comments by me as being my own opinions, I encourage apposing views. I don't have a monopoly on what is correct, and quite frankly seeing differing opinions make for more interesting reading, since it makes all of us work to support our positions and vice versa. (I say this more for the readers of this conversation than to you -- don't back down too quickly from your thoughts. Give my opinions no more, or no less than anyone else and make what I say stand on the merits) 

I mentioned Roger Fry and you mentioned Anthony Bertram and both stated (essentially) that Sargent only painted what he saw. I mentioned Fry in my first letter only to point out what the criticism of Sargent was -- though misunderstood in my opinion.  I don't agree with Fry nor Bertram either. What I meant by my point is that when he did eventually sit down with his wondrous Dr. Pozzi, the grown, the drapes, the room, I really do think that it did in fact actually exist -- they were not contrivances towards an end. In other words, I don't think that Sargent went into a blue room and intentionally painted it red. What I think happened is that after Sargent had investigated Pozzi's home for ideas of where and how to pose the man, that he struck upon the profound irony of the vain man's bedroom and adamantly insisted that he be painted in THAT room and with THAT robe in THAT way. Whether Sargent went out and bought a red robe for him or it was Pozzi's own, I don't know, and I personally like to think that is was Pozzi's, but I do know that he had personally chosen the garments for others. And maybe he tweaked the color, but I tend to think that he didn't, and if anything might have gone to great lengths to adjust the lighting in the room to deliver the "glowing, alive, alluring red" he wanted, such as he had done with "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" -- but maybe to a lesser extent. In this sense, Sargent only painted what he saw, but what he saw and what he painted speaks volumes in a very deliberate way. So we very much agree. 

I don't know about the hands. It really makes me wonder but I would submit to you a letter a patron who wrote on this very subject in 1902 (see letter). And in that case, he seemed to paint indeed only what he saw. But again, the virtuoso of Sargent was in knowing WHERE to freeze the pose at the most opportune moment. The particular posture of Pozzi's hands, was it deliberate? You bet it was, but again it wasn't contrived from his mind alone. Sargent painted what he saw. Pozzi probably did actually hold his hands in that way . . . at some point in time. The question is, why did Sargent pick that particular pose, and there we get into the wonderful and delightful teasing realm of interpretation. What does it mean?  

So if you see what I'm driving at: I'm not necessarily disagreeing with you about Sargent's overall conscious or unconscious idea about this painting, only in the means by which he got there. In other words, I think you are right-on in the speculation of Sargent's intent. 

Pozzi was painted in France, but he didn't exhibit it there, as you pointed out. He exhibited it in London in 1882. The obvious question is why London and not Paris? Well, if we look to see what he did show in Paris (see Road to Madame X) he had already settled upon the Lady with the Rose as being his portrait submission along with El Jaleo. The British were stunned by this bold painting at the Royal Academy.  Fairbrother colorfully states that it "encountered chilly silence in the British press" (p.40, John Singer Sargent, 1994). Vernon Lee, when she saw it loved what John had done and wrote to her mother about his picture  "more or less kicking other people's pictures into bits." I laughed when I read that (see letter), and can't you just envision it? Vernon Lee's description must have been perfect at describing the power of what Sargent had been able to capture. I wonder if he intuitively understood that such a painting, of such a personage, with such a reputation would illicit a bloody riot at the Salon. Just imagine the scandal of Madame X thirty fold. And for the fun of it, imagine the pure delight of Sargent at seeing both paintings together in his studio (See Bert's Essay on the Retrospective). The man clearly had a remarkable sense of humor, and the two of them together must have been (for him) an amusing collection of exotic creatures. 

But the British didn't like it, on the whole (I know not what Wilde's first thoughts were. Wouldn't it be fun if we could find out?) but besides the sheer power of it, it was just too "French" (Impressionistic) for most, and we already know what London thought of Whistler in these studies of chromatic colors (see Nocturne in Black and Gold The Falling Rocket). 

But I want to close by getting back to Dorian Gray and Wilde, you are on to something big here and I love it. Even if it would turn out to not be the case, it still works metaphorically. It is all deliciously right, as you say, and what you have written (along with your letter that fills it out)  is simply wonderful -- every bit of it. Thank you so much for sharing this with me and for letting me share it with others. It was beautifully written and just a joy to read. 

Heartfully felt 

Natasha Wallace 

(Editor's Note -- the discussion continues “Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde reference)


By:  Natasha Wallace
Copyright 1998-2006 all rights reserved
Updated 1/7/2006