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- A blatant depiction of a 
morally-corrupt soul

Adam.  Sutc  liffe@five.tv
(c) Copyright 2001
Printed by permission

At first sight he just demands attention. Put Dr Pozzi in any room and he will be the first that your eyes are drawn too. Magnificently tall - the canvass is more than two metres high. Preternaturally luminous - the great red slash of his figure seems to generate its own light - and a subject who is diabolically handsome in his own right. We are all drawn to his feet. He stands their like a King - a Cardinal or a God - utterly self-assured and  commanding. Yet his face is curiously unlined - a pristine Dorian Gray whose life experiences have been etched only across his soul, sparing his face. 

The artist, John Singer Sargent was already a master of his craft – which, in 1881, was the careful selection and portrayal of the beau monde of Parisian society. Every aspect of his canvasses was carefully rehearsed and thought through - 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. 

And then there is the selection of his subjects. Sargent was pro-active in going after the faces he wanted - and he was drawn, like much of Paris society - to Dr Samuel Jean Pozzi. This particular subject was an object of fascination and fevered gossip - a man reknown for his beauty - his work as a gynaecologist to the ladies of the haute bourgeosie - and his numerous and well-reported love affairs. A male coquette of immense vanity he revelled in the sobriquet given him by one of his lovers - the actress Sarah Berhardt - "Docteur Dieu". One can easily imagine Parisiennes of the haute bourgeoise going to any lengths to secure the attentions of this particular "Dieu". His fame and notoriety lay not only in his face and frame - but also, of course, in his hands. And Sargent shows us his two fine, bird-like hands - slender, feminine and sensitive. Perhaps one could even divine his profession from the way the hands are portrayed - those long, busy fingers which seem to have a separate existence from the rest of Pozzi's calm,  cerebral, and supremely controlled, form? 

Pozzi was a man supremely confident in himself and his status and at the top of his profession. He made his own rules and invented his own procedures - the most extraordinary example perhaps being his insistence on carrying out bi-manual ovarine examinations. To Paris society in the 1880s it only served to make Docteur Dieu even more alluring. He did not hesitate to give  demonstrations so others could see how a two handed gynacological examination could be carried out. And of course he did not use gloves or any form of barrier protection - the contact was intimate, unsheathed and naked. 

Those who shared his passion for gynacological invasion were admitted to his  private band whom he called, with clear acknowledgement of the clittoris: "The League of the Rose".  And he was their self-appointed  High Priest. He stands before a heavy velvet curtain in his theatre of operations - his bedroom. He wears a dressing gown, heavy tassles hanging down between his legs like one testes dangling above the other - a broad phallic shadow lying to one side. Beneath the gown, his nightshirt is dazzling white, romantic, Byronesque. His right hand is clasped to his breast in the position of sincerita - a common gesture in 17th century portraits of noblemen - but here instead of the open straight-fingered hand there is a twist, the index finger bent over and the thumb hooked into the gown - an indication that here "sincerita" is not really present - a facsimile perhaps, hiding the Doctor's true intent. 

Pozzi stands like Don Juan - a corrupt pleasure-seeker who even on being shown the open doors of hell refuses to repent. The pose is melodramatic - he looks down unconcerned and calm towards a bright source of light off  frame to the right - the fire of his own damnation? Sargent seems at once fascinated and repulsed by the pleasure-seeking -  pleasure-giving - scandal living and morally corrupt Dr Pozzi. This man was nothing less than the High Priest of the Vagina - and then it strikes you - Sargent has even gone as far as to show even this. Stand back and half close your eyes and Pozzi’s body can also be seen as a fleshy hollow or void at the centre of the frame – the whole picture is itself both a portrait of Pozzi and a huge representation of a vagina with the clittoris head – the “rose” – proudly standing at the top. 

In May 1882 “Dr Pozzi at Home” was exhibited and quickly became the best known of all Sargent’s work to that time. The venue was London where the most prominent commentator on art (and in particular paintings) was then a young self-appointed arbiter of taste, named Oscar Wilde. Within two years Sargent was to be a guest at Wilde’s wedding. We cannot say for certain  whether Wilde himself was drawn to Pozzi’s feet and marvelled at the work and its subject – but it is surely inconceivable that the most famous work of his close friend would escape his attention and scrutiny.

It would be a few more years before Wilde would pen “The Picture of Dorian Gray” but perhaps the seeds were already being sown.  “Dr Pozzi at Home” seems a perfect illustration for Wilde’s assertion that “The moral life of a  man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist”. 

And if we were to look for a prime example of a character who, like, Dorian Gray, revelled in his beauty at the cost of his immortal soul – need we look further than Dr Samuel Jean Pozzi?

(c) Copyright 2001
Printed here by permission

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Created 10/12/2001
Updated 1/7/2007