Blessed with professional success and movie-star looks, Dr. Pozzi stands before us appearing regal in his red velvet dressing gown. He was so admired for his sartorial élan that colleagues nicknamed him “The Siren.” The artist of this masterful portrait, legendary American expatriate John Singer Sargent, presents Pozzi devoid of any professional accoutrements, focusing instead on his sitter’s elegant appearance and joie de vivre. Yet Pozzi was a highly accomplished, a distinguished surgeon and gynecologist. Born in France to Italian-Swiss parents, Samuel-Jean Pozzy (1846-1918) changed the spelling of his name to Pozzi, perhaps to reflect his Italian pedigree. He wrote his first thesis on the obstetric fistula and was later promoted to professor for his thesis on the efficacy of hysterotomy in treating uterine fibromas.1
Not merely an eminent physician and research professor, he also served in two wars—first as a medic in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and again after the outbreak of World War I as a military surgeon in 1914. Ironically, Pozzi did not meet his death in either horrific war, but rather in the operating room. He had successfully amputated a patient’s leg a few years earlier, but the man became impotent and entreated Pozzi to operate again to fix the problem. Pozzi refused, and the disgruntled patient shot him fatally four times in the stomach.
Sargent aggrandizes his subject in the tradition of royal portraiture. As would befit a Habsburg emperor, the elegant doctor is depicted in full-length, but not in imperial vesture but rather in the informality of a bathrobe or dressing gown. He is either readying himself before an evening out, or perhaps has returned from one of his celebrity tête-à-têtes—he was once a lover of Sarah Bernhardt (on whom he operated, excising an ovarian cyst).2
Wide and rapid brushstrokes lend informality to the overall flavor of Sargent’s painting. Though primarily composed with loose brushstrokes, the painterly approach nevertheless brilliantly captures a complete if not penetrating characterization of Dr. Pozzi—both in appearance and overall spirit. Shades of red dominate. The background drapery, walls, and clothing adhere to a similar palette, but subtle tonal nuances eschew monotony or dullness. Sargent’s confident technique lends vivacity to the work. Red, a color of drama befitting the exciting life of Dr. Pozzi, might also have an underlying symbolic significance to blood and hence to Pozzi’s surgical activities. The meticulous care and focus on the superb rendering of Dr. Pozzi’s hands have been noted by previous critics, and interpretations range from homo-erotic leanings3 of the artist to the more direct reference of Pozzi’s examination skills in gynecology and surgery.
- Among his many publications: Samuel Jean Pozzi, A Treatise on Gynaecology, 3 vols. (London: New Sydenham Press, 1892).
- Carter, William C., “Mighty Hermaphrodite,” in Proust in Love, Yale University Press (2006), p.22.
- See for example, “Dr. Pozzi Comes Home,” by Leslie Cozzi, who notes such analysis by Alison Syme (October 7, 2014: https://hammer.ucla.edu/blog/2014/10/dr-pozzi-comes-home ).
SALLY METZLER, PhD, interned at the Alte Pinakotek in Munich, obtained her PhD in Art History from Princeton University, and worked at the National Gallery in Washington DC and the Cummer Museum in Jacksonville, Florida. She was director of the D’Arcy Museum of Loyola University in Chicago and in 2014 curated an exhibition on Bartholomeus Spranger at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.