- Cryogenic “trapping” was used to obtain the first TEM images of self-assembled monolayers of inorganic anions on a gold nanoparticle. This unique structural information makes it possible to study the formation of a protecting-ligand shell at an unprecedented level of detail. The protecting ligands are polyoxometalates (POMs; α-Xn+W12O40(8-n)−, Xn+ = Al3+ and “2H+”, and α-Xn+W11O39(12-n)−, Xn+ = P5+, Si4+, and Al3+) with large negative charges for association with the gold surface and W atoms (Z = 74) for TEM imaging. The POM-anion shells were obtained by ligand exchange from citrate-protected 13.8 nm gold nanoparticles. Replacement of the organic (citrate) by inorganic (tungsten-oxide) ligand shells results in substantial changes in the surface plasmon resonance (SPR). By correlating cryo-TEM images with changes in the SPR, degrees of surface coverage were reliably quantified by UV−visible spectroscopy. Then, the kinetics and thermodynamics of ligand-shell formation were investigated by systematically varying POM structure and charge. Rates of POM association with the gold surface (“nucleation”) are inhibited by the electric-potential barrier of the citrate-stabilized particles, while binding affinities increase linearly with the charges (from 5- to 9-) of structurally different POM anions, suggesting that no single orientation (“lattice matching”) is required for monolayer self-assembly. Time-dependent cryo-TEM images reveal that monolayer growth occurs via “islands”, a mechanism that points to cation-mediated attraction between bound POMs. Complete ligand shells comprised of 330 molecules of α-AlW11O399− (1) possess small net charges (29e from zeta-potential measurements) and short Debye lengths (κ−1 = 1.0 nm), which indicate that ∼99% of the 2970 K+ counter cations lie within ca. 1.5 nm (∼3 hydrated K+ ion diameters) from the outer surface of the POM shell. Energetic analysis of the 1.57 ± 0.04 nm center-to-center distance between molecules of 1 further indicates that K+ ions reside in the ca. 4.5 Å spaces between the bound ligands. These findings reveal an important structural role for counter cations within POM ligand shells on gold nanoparticles, analogous to that for cations in the monolayer walls of hollow POM-macroanion vesicles.