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William Hogarth On The Four Stages Of Animal Cruelty

March 18, 2013

There’s a fantastic post over on Our Hen House, about the graphic work of Hogarth relating cruelty to animals to the human condition:

Specifically, Hogarth used visual imagery to underscore his belief that cruelty to animals would lead to other forms of social ills. In other words, Hogarth did not see the mistreatment of animals as a distinct issue but, rather, understood it to be part of a larger pattern of social problems. Hogarth’s series, entitled The Four Stages of Cruelty, was released in February 1751 and was comprised of four separate prints, each furthering the narrative of a fictional character named Tom Nero. Of this series, Hogarth noted that he created these images “in hopes of preventing in some degree that cruel treatment of poor Animals which makes the streets of London more disagreeable to the human mind…the very describing of which gives pain.”

You can imagine what Hogarth might think of a factory farm, the Taiji slaughter, or the ivory trade. But these days he’d probably tackle it on Vimeo.

His series of drawings on the four stages of animal cruelty are still worth looking at, though, because they make a powerful point that I think it is critical to understand: cruelty to animals (and cruelty to the environment, for that matter), is not an isolated problem. Instead, it is just one consequence of a chronic human failure, which is a lack of wisdom or enlightenment. So addressing these problems is not simply a matter of trying to end animal cruelty, but trying in the first place to cultivate a completely different understanding about the human role on earth, and human relationships with other species–one that moves away from profit and exploitation, and toward compassion and stewardship. Do that, and lots pf problems are open to solution.

Let’s take a look (click images for full resolution, and Wikipedia has more detail on the scenes):

From Our Hen HouseIn the first image (appropriately titled “The First Stage of Cruelty”), we are introduced to Tom Nero as a young boy. He is on a London street with several other children, most of whom are engaged in some form of cruelty: a pair of cats are suspended from a lamppost, a stray dog has an object tied to his tail, a bird is being blinded by a hot object inserted in her eye. Tom Nero, Hogarth’s protagonist, is in the center of the composition torturing a dog by sticking an arrow in the animal’s anus while another friend pulls harshly on a rope tied around the dog’s neck. While this scene of unchecked cruelty is bad enough, the artist hints at worse to come through the inclusion of a compositional device foreshadowing Tom Nero’s mounting violence: a young man sketches Tom Nero’s eventual demise on the brick wall that the children cluster around.

Our Hen House:

In “The Second Stage of Cruelty,” Tom is no longer a child, and in this print he is shown beating a horse who has collapsed on the street from exhaustion andinjury. In order to emphasize the fact that this kind of cruelty did not occur as a series of isolated incidents, Hogarth included compositional elements such as a scene of bull-baiting, a once popular blood sport. On the walls behind Tom Nero and his horse are posters advertising fights at Broughton’s Amphitheatre, a location famous for its boxing matches, a detail which serves to link violence towards animals to other forms of violence found in English society at the time.

Our Hen House:

This notion of cruelty towards animals as part of larger social patterns is again emphasized in the third print of the series, “Cruelty in Perfection,” where Tom Nero is shown being arrested for the murder of a young woman.


Our Hen House concludes:

The final print in the series, “The Reward of Cruelty,” focuses the viewer’s attention on the body of Tom Nero after he has been executed for his crime – the rope affixed around his neck not only ensures that the viewer is aware of the precise method of his death, but also serves as a compositional counterpoint to the rope around the dog’s neck in the first print – Tom Nero’s demise is clearly linked to the pattern of increasingly cruel behavior he exhibited throughout his life.

So the cruelty that Tom Nero indulges is a cancer of his soul and eventually consumes him. These days, the lack of compassion for animals has more global implications. The individual cruelty of Tom Nero was eventually scaled to industrial proportions, and has become institutionalized around the globe as a source of profit. That cruelty–that lack of regard for the sentience, well-being and rights of non-human animals–reflects a deep and dangerous flaw in human nature that doesn’t just corrupt individuals, but is consuming the planet.

Hogarth probably could not capture a vision as dark as that. But he would be just the right artist to give it a try.

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