George Frederic Watts captures the melancholy of his title, taken directly from Mark 10:22, ‘For he had great possessions’. He has, it seems, inherited material wealth; now he asks to inherit the kingdom of heaven. The painting provokes hard questions that walk beside this familiar story. Might the rich young man be wondering why his achievements—prestige, education, and virtue—should burden his pursuit of holiness?
Watts’s figure, with his slumped shoulders, might suggest to us a childlike sadness. Maybe too it awakens a theological realization: eternal life, the greatest possession, cannot be owned, or accomplished from our own resources. The man gazes downward, his shoulders weighted by fur trim and a golden chain. Only one hand emerges from the sumptuous fabric, poised ambiguously in a half-closed, half-open position. To give away favourite things feels like loss, perhaps even the anxious sacrifice of a longstanding identity in which much has been invested. Can this would-be disciple imagine himself apart from what he owns?
We never learn the rich man’s name in the Gospel; Watts, as though in keeping with this fact, hides his face from view. We know the subject of Watts’s portrait only from titles and garments: just those great possessions that Christ now asks him to give away. But what point in the story, exactly, has Watts shown us in this moment of apparent mourning? The spare background has a single vertical line to organize perspective with shadows near the bottom. Watts implies bare walls, possibly the corner of an empty room. We might imagine the narrator’s ‘he had great possessions’ describing the rich man’s sigh in preparation for an immediate estate sale.
Nevertheless, we know he is a quick learner. He corrects himself from ‘Good Master’ to ‘Master’ after only a single injunction from the Teacher (Mark 10:20). The painting invites us to grieve the difficulty of this next assignment, but also to hope that this nameless man will sell his great many things and join Jesus’s crowd of followers. His hand might not be clutching at all, but rather in the middle of the first intensely hard act of letting go.
17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’ ” 20And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.” 21And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.
23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” 26And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” 28Peter began to say to him, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. 31But many that are first will be last, and the last first.”