The Importance of the Visual

“Children of the tenderest age, even before they can articulate, may be taught, through the simple agency of pictures, to admire and appreciate living creatures.

-Henry Bergh, Founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)

Art and visual culture have been–and, indeed, continue to be–a very important part of campaigns advocating for better treatment of all species. Perhaps one of the earliest examples of art being used in the service of Humane Education was William Hogarth’s “Four Stages of Cruelty.” This was a series of 4 prints published in 1751, each depicting a scene from the life of a man named Tom Nero. Tom Nero was not an actual person but, rather, an allegorical figure who stood in for anyone who was unkind to animals. This series begins with a scene of Tom abusing animals as a young boy. The following image shows Tom as a young man, beating his carriage horse who has collapsed in the street from sheer exhaustion. In both of the first two images Tom is not the only one engaged in abusive behaviour toward animals–Hogarth makes it clear through these images that cruelty and abuse was not an isolated incident. The third image shows Tom moments after he has murdered a young woman, and the fourth and final print of the series shows Tom’s body being dissected after he was executed for his crime. The underlying narrative of this series was that cruelty towards animals would lead to moral and social decay. Hogarth hoped that by publishing this series of images he would be able to change the behaviour of those who viewed these images. This series has been digitized and can be viewed online.

In the 19th century artists such as Edwin Landseer and Rosa Bonheur became well known for their animal paintings. Landseer, a British artist, was a member of the Royal Academy and one of  Queen Victoria’s favorite artists. He is, perhaps, best known for his paintings of dogs. Bonheur was a French artist who made headlines not only for her art but also for her refusal to adhere to strict 19th century gender roles. For example, she sought–and received–special permission to wear trousers instead of a dress when she visited horse fairs and auction sites in order to sketch animals from life.

Both Landseer and Bonheur were celebrated by the 19th- and early 20th-century animal advocacy movement. Their pictures were reproduced in Humane Education publications, and prints of their work were sold as a way to raise money for organizations like the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA). What is important to note is that these reproductions were often made decades after the artist originally painted the work–these were images that were recontextualized as part of campaigns for animal welfare, animal rights, and anti-vivisection many years after they were first exhibited and as such began to take on new meanings.

Print emphasizing “hunting with the camera.” Published by the American Humane Education Society, c.1921. Collection of Robert Penney.

Photographic technology was also an important aspect of Humane Education. During the time period that this exhibition focuses on, the camera was increasingly promoted as a visual technology that could provide a safe and humane way for children to interact with animals. The birth of modern photography dates to 1839 when Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre first announced his daguerreotype invention to the Academy of Arts and Sciences in Paris. Later that same year Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot introduced his calotype photographic process. In both cases early photography was hailed as a technology that could be used to study and learn about nature. This understanding of photography was an important part of Humane Education.

Humane Education encouraged children to use a camera instead of “traps and gun” when encountering animals as is the case in this poster produced by the American Humane Education Society c.1921. This theme of using photography to learn about other species was prominent throughout Humane Education efforts in the late 19th- and early 20th- centuries. For example, in Flora Helm Krause’s 1910 publication entitled Manual of Moral and Humane Education one of the discussion questions around the theme of “Nature Study” for 8th graders was: “The kodak can accomplish more in science than the gun.”

This notion of replacing a gun with a camera became increasingly widespread in Humane Education literature. For example, a leaflet on birds published by the American Humane Education Society for use in schools and by Bands of Mercy, included a poem by W.J. Holliday entitled “The Camera-Hunter.” In this poem the author not only talks about the kinship he feels with other species, but also about how his darkroom was a crucial site for him to enjoy his continued exploration of other species.

No cry of wounded bird, no empty nest

No plumage darkening with a crimson stain,

Nor eye fast glazing with approaching death,

For we are brothers with the wind and rain

I would not break your flight, O happy bird,

Nor hush the music of your morning song,

Nor still the call of mate to wooing mate,

For we are brothers, and the day is long

The day is long, and filled with rare surprise

The changing beauty of the field and sky

Lift you to song, while all around I feel

Akin with things that live and move and fly.

So when the day is done and night appears,

Within my darkened room there comes to view

The pictured story of your woodland home,

And from my heart your song returns to you.

Our Dumb Animals, the publication of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) and the American Humane Education Society (AHES) sponsored photography competitions for children, offering cash prizes for the best photographs of animals submitted. The competitions were open to all children under the age of 15 and the photographs had to be taken with their own camera. The rules of the competition changed with time. For example, in 1932 those entering the contest were told that pictures of dogs and cats were ineligible for this competition. By the following year, however, the editors of Our Dumb Animals had changed their mind and made a point of stating that photographs of dogs and cats would be welcome in that year’s photography competition.

The goals of the competitions were to “encourage the study of animal life with the camera, to quicken the love for many of nature’s lowly children and foster the spirit of kindness toward them.” That the editors of Our Dumb Animals saw photography as an important way to encourage this “spirit of kindness” is yet another example of the high importance those involved with animal advocacy in these decades placed upon visual imagery as a tool of Humane Education.

Next Section: Humane Education & Children in Britain

Previous Section: Leaders in the Humane Education Movement

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