Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Been Cruising This Dude for 127 Years

1881 pozzi

The subject of John Singer Sargent’s portrait is Dr. Samuel-Jean Pozzi, early specialist in gynecology and otherwise a ladies’ man of note.

No doubt his slender, elegant fingers cured many a bout of neurasthenia with his pelvic massage (a common cure of the day, for hysteria). Reportedly he had affairs with a number of his female patients, including renowned actresses Sarah Bernhardt and Gabrielle Rejane, Genevieve Bizet (widow of composer Georges Bizet and model for Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes), and Amelie Gautreau, who posed for another Sargent sizzler, the infamous Madame X.

His med school buddies nicknamed him the “Siren,” and he was later dubbed “the love doctor.”

He also improved Paris’s water and sewage system during his term as senator and sided with Emile Zola in the infamous Dreyfus trial. Mainly he’s remembered as the dark and handsome knockout in the red houserobe.

He’s in his mid-30s in this painting, lambently captured in Sargent’s gaze and looking better here than he does in the photographs I’ve seen of the man.

The painting first appeared in public less than 20 years ago, but I had seen lithographs of it in a highly prized art book about (I think) 30 years ago. I was immediately awestruck.

For those familiar with “my type,” it’s no surprise that the face is what excites me—a face is as good as a nude, depending on the face and depending on the nude.

The liquid dark eyes, both passionate and sensitive. The alabaster forehead. The Roman nose. The obsessively groomed hair and beard. The hint of sadistic disdain. The throat that shines almost as white as the ruffled collar.

There are, of course, those um fingers, too.

Given the lurid red of the painting, widely interpreted as Sargent’s statement on Pozzi’s reputation as a Latin lover, you might have thought the good doctor’s life would have burned fierce but brief, but he died in his 70s, shortly after World War I.

But he did not, alas, die in peace. He was shot to death by a former (male) patient because Pozzi said he would be unable to cure the man’s impotence, which the patient blamed on a leg amputation the doctor had performed earlier.

Sex, toujours le sex.


  1. Hi Joe,

    At the time Sargent painted the portrait, Dr. Pozzi was a general surgeon and not yet involved in gynecology. There was no such thing as a society gynecologist because female surgery was not yet a medical specialty and gynecological needs were usually handled by mid-wives. There were no pap smears or ultrasounds and women only saw a surgeon when they were in grave physical distress.

    Pozzi's fingers were those of a surgeon. It’s doubtful that he did pelvic massage which was performed in the U.S. rather than Europe.

    I have co-written two very well received articles about Sam Pozzi and invite you to visit his website, My co-writer (who is a professor of Gynecology and Obstetrics)and I are reworking the site but it gives much more credible info about him tha most sources.

    Regarding photos of Pozzi not looking like the painting, most images of him were taken when he was in his 50's and 60's including the famed photo of him by Nadar holding a top hat...he was 52 at the time.

    I've seen several photos of him as a teen and young man from his family archive and yes, he looked like the painting. He was over six feet tall and called the beautiful Pozzi.

    He was also the man who brought antiseptics to France and was considered one of the great surgeons of the world. He and Sarah Bernhardt were lovers for nine years (before he married) and remained friends until his death. He was very gay friendly and socially progressive.



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