George Frederic Watts

The Minotaur


Not on display
George Frederic Watts 1817–1904
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1181 x 945 mm
frame: 1485 x 1254 x 97 mm
Presented by the artist 1897


In Greek mythology the Minotaur, half-man, half-bull, was appeased by annual human sacrifices. Every year, seven youths and seven virgins were shipped from mainland Athens to the Island of Crete to be devoured by the monster. In Watts's painting, the Minotaur leans out across the sea from a high parapet in anticipation of the ship's arrival. The yellow sunlight of the breaking dawn glints off the shoulder of the beast, accentuating his powerful body and catching the hairs of the tail that flicks out behind him. On the parapet, the Minotaur's large, hoof-like fist has crushed a small bird, a recognised symbol of the innocence and purity of youth.

Watts, an allegorical painter who employed art to convey moral messages, uses the character of the Minotaur to signify man's bestiality and especially male lust. The making and meaning of The Minotaur can be traced to the social purity crusades against child prostitution, which led in 1885 to the passing of the Criminal Law Amendment Act and the raising of the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen. In the forefront of these crusades was the figure of W.T. Stead (1849-1912), whose series of articles on the London trade in child prostitution were published in the Pall Mall Gazette in July 1885 under the title 'The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon'. Stead's explicit references to the Greek myth of the Minotaur throughout his exposé reputedly inspired the subject of Watts's painting: 'The appetite of the minotaur of London is insatiable', wrote Stead ; 'If the daughters of the people must be served up as dainty morsels to minister to the passions of the rich, let them at least attain an age when they can understand the nature of the sacrifice which they are asked to make' (quoted in Mathews, p.339). Watt's close friend Mrs Russell Barrington records how The Minotaur was painted with unusual rapidity early one morning in response to 'a painful subject' that 'had filled one of the evening papers' ; almost certainly the Pall Mall Gazette (Barrington, pp.38-9). When The Minotaur was first shown, at the Liverpool Autumn exhibition of 1885, Watts explained that his aim in painting it had been 'to hold up to detestation the bestial and brutal' (quoted in Art Journal, 1885, p.322). The Minotaur was among those works that Watts dedicated to the British Nation in 1897 and which are now held in the Tate collection. Mammon (Tate N01630), a moralising invective against the evils of material greed, is another.

Further reading:
Patricia Mathews, 'The Minotaur of London', Apollo, May 1986, pp.338-41, reproduced p.338.
Andrew Wilton and Robert Upstone (eds), The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997.
Mrs Russell Barrington, Reminiscences of G.F. Watts, London 1905, pp.38-9.

Rebecca Virag
March 2001

Display caption

In Greek mythology the Minotaur, half-man, half-bull, was appeased by the annual sacrifice of virgins brought from mainland Athens to Crete. Watts shows the creature gazing out to sea in eager anticipation of his prey; the small bird crushed by his mighty fist symbolises the purity and vulnerability of youth.

The painting was inspired by a lurid exposure of the traffic in child prostitution by a journalist named WT Stead. The article, called ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ and published in the Pall Mall Gazette in July 1885, was intended as an indictment of male lust.

Gallery label, September 2004


Tate Etc

George Frederic Watts's The Minotaur: Tate Etc. at Tate Britain / Artists' Perspectives

In celebration of the reopening of Tate Britain, Tate Etc. invited a selection of artists from around the world to ...

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