by Frances Fowle
George Frederic Watts, in common with such social commentators as William Morris, Ruskin and Carlyle, began to question the benefits and purpose of modern industry and commerce and their dehumanizing effects. In 1880 he wrote, “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.” (G.F. Watts, “The Present Conditions of Art”). Four years later he decided to personify this so-called deity—the evil “Mammon”—in paint.
The picture is nearly life-size and the seated figure against a 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. Watts visualizes Mammon as a brutish despot: an ugly, lumpen figure seated on his throne, nursing his moneybags on his lap. The ogre brushes aside a beautiful girl with one hand, and crushes a young man under foot. Both are symbols of youth, innocence and beauty; yet, naked and vulnerable, they are also lifeless and inert. Mammon sits in glory with his “gorgeous but ill-fitting golden draperies, which fall awkwardly about his coarse limbs” (M.H. Spielmann, “The Works of Mr. George F. Watts, R.A., with a Complete Catalogue of his Pictures,” Pall Mall Gazette, 1886, p. 21). In the oil study (Watts Gallery, Compton), Watts also gives Mammon a bandaged, gouty foot, a symptom of his indulgent and excessive lifestyle.
Mammon’s crown, with its upended gold coins and ass’s ears, symbolizes 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.
The subtitle of the picture—Dedicated to his Worshippers—is like an inscription on a monument. Watts apparently had plans to commission a sculpture of Mammon which would be set up in Hyde Park and “where he hoped his worshippers would be at least honest enough to bow the knee publicly to him.”