George Frederic Watts, Mammon: Dedicated to his Worshippers

Tate Gallery, London

Date: 1884-85
Technique: Oil on canvas 182.9 x 106 cm

Watts painted Mammon as an entirely new subject for his own collection. It sums up many of his concerns at this stage in his career. With forthright clarity, its indisputable message cannot be denied and is enhanced by the nearly life-size scale of the work. The word 'Mammon', in origin Aramaic for riches, can be defined as wealth elevated to the position of an idol, amounting to an evil influence. In medieval times, the word was used as the proper name for the demon of covetousness. Throughout Watts's own writings, one finds many of the ideas which fed into Mammon. In 1880, Watts wrote in his article 'The Present Conditions of Art' (see p.72) about contemporary life: 'Modern habits of investigation have sapped unquestioning faith, and have not supplied anything more consoling. Material prosperity has become our real god, but we are surprised to find that the worship of this visible deity does not make us happy' (reprinted in Watts 1912, III, p.166). Mammon follows a few years after these remarks as a visualisation of Watts's firmly held belief in the evil of accruing money for its own sake.

Mammon is enthroned, like an ancient king, but further consideration reveals his grotesque physical appearance and his heartless cruelty. He crushes a youth under one foot; while a beautiful girl collapses under his massive fist. These figures, clearly emblematic of youth, innocence and beauty, appear lifeless and inert. Mammon, colossal in scale by comparison, sits in full glory with his 'gorgeous but ill-fitting golden draperies, which fall awkwardly about his coarse limbs' (Spielmann 1886, p.21). Moneybags fill his ample lap. In the oil study (Watts Gallery, Compton), Mammon is also characterised by his bandaged, gouty foot, another sign of his indulgence in luxuries, and further transforming him into a malformed monster.

Watts consciously manipulated art-historical conventions to heighten the impact of the picture. The format, with a nearly full-scale figure seated against a curtained background, calls to mind the tradition of the grand manner portrait, chiefly associated with masters of this genre in the late eighteenth century. In the case of Mammon, expectations are confounded: instead of an established worthy or famous beauty, the artist instead presents an object of disgust and horror seated on a throne decorated with skulls. The glimpse behind the curtained background reveals not a peaceful landscape garden or estate, but a view of fire and destruction.

Mammon's headgear is a clear reference to the 'Midas-eared Mammonism' excoriated by Carlyle in Past and Present (see p.29). It consists of a crown circled with upended gold coins, with ass's ears affixed to each side. It carries several iconographic meanings of its own, usually referring to ignorance and stupidity. Ovid's Metamorphoses told the story of King Midas, whose touch turned everything to gold, to whom Apollo gave ass's ears because he did not respond the music of the lyre. A link with Midas underlined Watts's message about the evils of wealth. There was also a saying current in the nineteenth century, 'King Death hath asses' ears', from Death's Jest Book of 1850 by Thomas Lovell Beddoes, which also relates to and enhances the meaning of Mammon.

The best-known reference to Mammon in literature appeared in Spenser's Faerie Queene, book II, canto 7, when Sir Guyon discovers the cave of Mammon, the treasure-house, or 'house of Richesse', of the god of wealth. Watts had frequently turned to Spenser's work, as, for example, in the various versions of Britomart. Spenser's lines characterise Mammon as bearing long claw-like nails and as tanned by soot from the blacksmith's forge, a detail one can link with the smoke in the Watts's painting. In his lap, Mammon carried a mass of gold coins and around him were great heaps of gold with which he tried to tempt the good knight.

The subtitle of the painting - Dedicated to his Worshippers - suggests other meanings for the work. Mrs Watts recorded that the artist would often preach against Mammon-worship, once saying 'Holy Mammon - Divine Respectability - Sacred Dividend'. He told the artist Briton Rivière, a good friend, that 'he was going to propose to one of our sculptors to make a statue of Mammon, that it might be set up in Hyde Park, where he hoped his worshippers would be at least honest enough to bow the knee publicly to him' (Watts 1912, II, p.149). As a sculptor himself, Watts may well have intended carrying out this idea; indeed the subtitle to the painting is like an inscription on a monument. A public monument would have had the advantage of being seen by an audience even wider than those attending fine art exhibitions.

In 1889, Mammon appeared as part of a group of nine works sent to the Universal Exhibition and of all of these works, including Hope, The Judgement of Paris and Love and Life, Mammon presented the most disturbing vision. Recalling that Sizeranne identified the exhibition of 1889 as a defining moment when the Symbolists seized upon the works of Watts and Burne-Jones (see pp.76-7), it must surely have been the imagery of cruelty, destruction and evil in Mammon that appealed to the more extreme members of French decadent circles.

Barbara Bryant


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