‘For he had great possessions’ by George Frederick Watts

George Frederick Watts

‘For he had great possessions’, 1894, Oil on canvas, 139.7 x 58.4 cm, Tate, London, N01632, © Tate, London / Art Resource, NY

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Mourning Lessons

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Charles A. Gillespie

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.