The series of prints immediately caught my eye. I was visiting the newly remodeled main library at the Ohio State University last weekend; an exhibition in the main floor gallery featured a wide variety of objects with no decipherable theme. I certainly didn't expect to see something there that relates so closely to the work I do, particularly in a series of engravings from 1751.
"I had rather, if cruelty has been prevented by the four prints [The Four Stages of Cruelty], be maker of them than of the [Raphael] cartoons." William Hogarth (1697-1764)
William Hogarth was an English artist and engraver. His series of prints and verse, "The Four Stages of Cruelty," which depict the life of the fictional Tom Nero and reflect the everyday brutality which Hoarth observed in mid-18th century London, still has the ability to shock.
Hogarth himself was an animal lover and used his artistic talent to provide moral instruction, especially to the lower classes. These prints were intended to be reproduced in public places to get the most possible exposure.
The "First Stage of Cruelty" shows a young Tom Nero brutally attacking a dog with an arrow. Although another young boy attempts to intervene on behalf of the poor animal, other boys are depicted torturing cats, cocks, a bird and another dog. The accompanying verse says in part:
Learn from this fair Example - You
Whom savage Sports delight,
How Cruelty disgusts the view,
While pity charms the site.
In the "Second Stage of Cruelty," Tom Nero is grown and works as a
coachman, where he is seen abusing his horse. The animal has collapsed but
Nero continues to beat him, even putting out an eye. The scene includes
other violence, with abuse directed to a lamb and an ass, with a bull shown
as attacking in revenge.
Inhuman Wretch! say whence proceeds
This coward Cruelty?
What Int'rest springs from barb'rous deeds
What Joy from Misery?
By the time of the third print, "Cruelty in Perfection," Tom now has encouraged his pregnant mistress to rob her (upper class) mistress. When the two meet, he murders her in a particularly brutal manner. The print depicts the horrific crime scene.
In the last of the series, "The Reward of Cruelty," the modern reader finally is presented with a scene that is totally foreign. Here, having been convicted of murder, Tom is hanged and subjected to the final indignity: his body is delivered to surgeons to be "dissected and anatomized." This is a practice known to Hogarth at the time (and one that was codified the following year by a law whose purpose was to deter murder and mandated that the murderer's body not be buried but rather subjected to dissection).
The relevance and power of the series continues. The artist Sue Coe's 1998 graphic novel Pit's Letter and picture cycle, "The Pit" (1999), are a homage to Hogarth's series. Pit's Letter describes "the journeys taken both together and separately by a boy and his dog. The boy grows up to be a biology student and a scientist; he and the dog are unwillingly parted; they will meet again, but only after the dog has become a laboratory subject and the scientist has been fatally infected with a 'hot' virus."
Unfortunately, much of the series remains a morality lesson for our time. We can only hope that through artists like Sue Coe, as well as work done by the Animals and Society Institute and other advocacy groups, all the cruelty depicted by Hogarth some 250 years ago, whether directed toward animals or humans, will become as obsolete as the practice of dissecting humans convicted of murder.