One of the things that makes the history of visual culture so compelling to study is discovering the links that exist between activists today and those speaking out against injustice in previous eras. While socio-political contexts have of course shifted (to say nothing of the technologies used to make and reproduce images!), historical images can provide an important framework for understanding the depth and breadth of the history of activist efforts.
For example, over 250 years ago, an artist by the name of William Hogarth published a series of prints that focused on the brutal consequences of cruelty to animals in 18th century English society. 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.”
In 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.
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 and injury. 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.
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. 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. In this final print, surgeons are dissecting Tom Nero’s body, and the very visible display of his remains speaks to another political issue at this time, namely the debate over the dissection of human remains for the purposes of scientific study. In 1752, the year after Four Stages of Cruelty was published, the so-called “Murder Act” came into effect in England, allowing for the dissection of bodies of those executed for murder. This legislation would have been hotly debated at the time Hogarth’s prints were published, and serves as a reminder to us of the ways in which images addressing cruelty to animals were not made in isolation from other social and political questions. As is the case today, many complex issues are at play in both the creation of these images and the ways in which they would have been viewed and understood.
The images in The Four Stages of Cruelty are just some of the many prints and paintings that Hogarth created as a form of social commentary. For example, in Beer Street and Gin Lane (1751) the artist dealt with the subject of alcoholism, and A Harlot’s Progress (1731) was about prostitution. Hogarth ensured that the price of these prints was set low enough so that they would be affordable for all segments of society, further emphasizing the intended educational role he hoped that they would have. Indeed, the print medium coupled with the relatively low cost (especially when compared with oil on canvas paintings) ensured that a wide and diverse audience saw these images. In the days before photography, prints were an important form of visual communication, and Hogarth’s work stands as a good example of this phenomenon.
Our current technologies of image reproduction also ensure that Hogarth’s images are still circulated and discussed, more than two and a half centuries since they were first published. I will never forget the first time I encountered these images as a grad student. I sat in stunned silence as I absorbed the knowledge that someone way back in 1751 was using art to speak out against cruelty to animals. I think I had naively assumed that this kind of imagery was a product of late 20th century thinking, and I was awed and humbled to see my assumptions proved wrong.
Discovering The Four Stages of Cruelty was like finding a key I didn’t know that I had been searching for – in addition to recognizing the complex history of this kind of activism, for the first time in my life I realized that it was possible to blend academic work with activism, that I could study art history, and, at the same time, work towards changing the world for animals. It was at that moment that I recognized the important role that art and visual culture play in the context of creating a more compassionate world, and this realization has continued to shape the teaching and research I do today. I now begin my “Picturing Animals” classes with Hogarth’s Four Stages of Cruelty, and these prints serve as an important launching point for discussions I have with my students throughout the semester. How we make sense of these images in the 21st century is undoubtedly different than the ways in which viewers in the 18th century would have understood these prints, and yet, at the same time, there is much we can learn from this history if we take the time to stop and reflect on it.