On Bipeds & Brutes

National Museum of Animals & Society Blog

Connecting the Dots

Four stages of cruelty - First stage of cruelt...

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This week is National Animal Cruelty/Human Violence Awareness Week.

There is a sizeable body of research now showing that people who commit acts of cruelty towards animals rarely stop there and, in fact, have higher chances of inflicting violence on children, the elderly, spouses, and the community at large. The cycle of violence is a self-perpetuating one whereby partakers and bystanders become desensitized to the abuse and possibly even comfortable with its continuation.

Social workers and animal shelter employees haven’t been the only ones to recognize that there is a connection between animal cruelty and human violence. Individuals have been connecting the dots for centuries.

One of the most staggering works depicting this cycle of violence belongs to English artist William Hogarth (1697 – 1764). In a four-paneled series entitled The Four Stages of Cruelty, Hogarth engraved the life of fictional protagonist Tom Nero and his escalation of violence, from torturing a dog (Panel 1) to severely beating a horse (Panel 2) and  engaging in robbery and murder (Panel 3). The final panel shows Nero’s body undergoing public dissection after having hung at the gallows.  Hogarth packed a big punch in each print. Take a close look at all that transpires around Tom Nero.

For example, in this First Stage, boys use a hot needle to burn the eyes out of a bird, throw a chicken, and tie a bone to a dog’s tail. Cats are hung by their tails and taunted, a dog is set upon a cat, and another cat is thrown from a building’s upper story.

As an engraving, The Four Stages of Cruelty reached a broad audience through massive printing on low-cost paper. Disseminated throughout the streets of London, the series made it into the hands of the lower class, Hogarth’s intended audience. A century later, many of the cruelties addressed by Hogarth would be outlawed through legislation.

See the series in its entirety on-line through Tate Britain’s exhibition archive.

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