Mammon by George Frederic Watts RA (1817-1904). 1884-85. Oil on canvas. 1829 × 1060 mm (frame: 2150 × 1384 × 90 mm). Collection: Tate, ref. no. N01630. Presented by the artist in 1897. Kindly released by the gallery under the terms of the Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported) licence.

Wilfrid Scawen Blunt tells that "Watts, after his return from Italy in the forties, had been deeply moved by the misery of the poor," and although the paintings of that time, like Under a Dry Arch, had a poor reception at the href="../../../art/institutions/grosvenor.html">Grosvenor Gallery in 1881-82, he "moved still further to the Left" (211). When Mammon was shown, he subtitled it, "Dedicated to his Worshippers," and described the large, practically life-size figure in scathing terms in the catalogue: "The god, his face expressive of avarice, cruelty and insolence, and his head flanked with ass’s ears, seated towards right, and decked in gorgeous but ill-fitting draperies; his right hand rests heavily on the head of a crouching woman, and his left foot is placed on the prostrate figure of a man; in his lap are money bags" (qtd. in Blunt 211).

The Tate's own "Summary" is very helpful, explaining that the

curtained backdrop calls to mind the portraits of Titian. However, instead of an established figure or celebrated beauty, Watts depicts an object of revulsion, seated on a throne decorated with skulls. Just behind the curtained background we are offered a glimpse, not of a peaceful landscape, but of fire and destruction. The picture is painted in a rich, almost hellish palette of red, gold and black.... Mammon's crown, with its upended gold coins and ass's ears, symbolises Mammon's ignorance and stupidity, but also links him with Ovid's King Midas, whose touch turned everything to gold and to whom Apollo gave ass's ears because he did not respond to the music of the lyre. The best-known literary reference to Mammon occurs in Spencer's Faerie Queene, book II, canto 7. Spencer describes Mammon as tanned by soot from the blacksmith's forge, a detail that perhaps accounts for the smoke on the right hand side of the painting.

So involved with his subject was Watts that he even thought of commissioning a sculpture of Mammon for Hyde Park, where it would reach the wider public, saying "he hoped his worshippers would be at least honest enough to bow the knee publicly to him" (qtd. in the Tate summary). Another piece of information from the same source is that Watts's oil study, in the Watts Gallery at Compton, shows Mammon with "a bandaged, gouty foot, a symptom of his indulgent and excessive lifestyle." In such ways, the work clearly anticipates the deliberate and uncomfortable ugliness of later art that seeks to stimulate understanding and change, rather than a sentimental appreciation of an (imaginary) better past.


Blunt, Wilfrid Scawen. "England's Michaelangelo": A Biography of George Frederic Watts, OM., R.A. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1975.

"George Frederic Watts: Mammon, 1884-5." Tate. Web. 19 November 2023.

Created 19 November 2023