The Romance of Vivisection

The artist Emile-Edouard Mouchy painted La leçon de physiologie sur un chien in 1832. The picture now lurks somewhere in the Wellcome Collection, that huge archive and museum of medical science assembled by the pharmacist and businessman Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), and visitable at the Wellcome Trust headquarters on the Euston Road in London. There haven’t been many serious Mouchy painting.jpgartistic attempts at the subject of vivisection, for very obvious reasons. Fewer still are those that treat the subject without express distaste, but that is what Mouchy seems to be doing in his leçon. For that reason, no doubt, the picture is sometimes used for illustration in neutral or defensive accounts of animal research, though never, so far as I have seen, with any further comment. Some further comment is therefore what I shall attempt to provide now.

Everything about La leçon shows physiology as a new and as yet un-institutionalized subject. The setting seems to be a private room, perhaps an attic. The furniture is unscientific and inadequate: seats for a lucky few only (which makes for a fine artistic composition). But it’s evidently a rising subject, too: the scientist is a young man, addressing youths. The whole scene looks to the future; even that second dog implies a miserable succession of animals ahead. And those dusty-looking skeletons relegated to a shelf at the back: they hint that physiology is taking over from anatomy as the key biological discipline and new foundation for medical studies (though anatomy remained indispensable, of course). And that was indeed a fact, unhappily illustrated by the recent appointment, to the chair of medicine at the Collège de France, of the notorious pioneer of vivisection François Magendie.

As for Mouchy’s vivisector himself, there in the centre of the picture, he glows with light, patently a luminary. The picture makes a romantic hero of him, much as the artist was about to do more plausibly for his chosen subject in La Mort de Thomas Becket (1834). In fact Mouchy seems to be raising him beyond even that. Surely there’s something familiar about the scene in that upper room, with the young acolytes grouped around their teacher in various postures of earnest attention or whispered comment, six on either side? It’s a version of the last supper, as described in the Christian gospels and in many works of art subsequently – so many as to constitute a genre of its own, and one which was certainly well-known to Mouchy.

The vivisector, then, is to be imagined as investing a great and universal truth in these young students, who will take it out into the future. And something more than that must be implied in this re-casting of the last supper: this new truth, the world as revealed by the uninhibited practise of experimental science, is to supplant the old Christian one as the governing authority in human (Western, at least) minds. Certainly that’s what did happen during the nineteenth century, and vivisection was the crucial setting for the contest of values which it involved. Hence the title which the novelist Ouida (real name Maria Louise Ramé) gave to her brilliant attack of 1893 on vivisection: ‘The New Priesthood’. By then it was a familiar enough idea, and indeed had constituted a deliberate policy for science’s promoters (for Thomas Huxley, for instance, of whom more below). But it took many years of struggle and habituation before this shift of cultural authority could be accepted. To represent that triumph as Mouchy did in 1832 must have seemed a shocking and blasphemous hyperbole. At any rate, the painting was apparently refused exhibition at the Salon des Beaux Arts in Paris expressly because of its subject-matter.

Let’s consider the dogs themselves now, something that the students are plainly not doing. Their eyes follow the master’s knife as it points at the wound and the exposed interior of the subject dog. Their postures and expressions of rapt attention suggest that they hardly hear the dog’s howls, certainly are unmoved by them. The barking of the second dog is the only indication of sympathetic interest anywhere in the picture. In this case, then, the necessary silence of a painting is itself expressive: you can choose to hear that noise or merely to register it. For a modern audience, in fact, the scene may be more reminiscent of Stanley Milgram’s famous 1960s experimental study of obedience to authority than of the last supper (see note below): under the direction of a master, these malleable young men, with their sensitive faces and cultured modishness, are learning indifference to animal suffering, a terrible and portentous lesson.

Does the artist have that moral dimension of the lesson in mind? I feel sure that he doesn’t, however plainly present in the picture it is. He knew his duty as an artist to the animal form, and he represents the distressed movements of the dogs with vivid accuracy. But he seems to draw no conclusion. There is one hint of dissonance just behind the vivisector, where a student puts his hand on another’s arm and points to the door. He might be saying (should be saying) ‘I’m having no part in this!’, but that’s simply imputation. He might even be intended for the one dissonant element present in all representations of the last supper – the uneasy and disloyal Judas – but that seems too literal-minded. It’s true that the making public by dissidents of supposed intra-professional scenes like this one was soon to become a vital part of the moral challenge to vivisection, but for all his foresight the artist was not in tune with that part of the future. Or perhaps I’m missing something obvious.

Anyway, Mouchy does indeed in this picture seem to foresee that physiology would become, as Thomas Huxley called it in 1854, “the experimental science par excellence”, and in becoming so would help in what Huxley called “the destruction of things that have been holy”, and the rise of a new god, “the God of science”. It’s another vulnerable god, however. As the Christian sense of what nature meant gave ground (and one can’t pretend that it had ever served the other animals well), newer ways of understanding and valuing life were prompted into being, notably by the indignation which scenes of the sort pictured by Mouchy aroused. The absolute right of mankind to make the rest of the world its servant was put to critical and creative question.

The Wellcome Collection has no special interest in that ethical dimension, but it has some items which do illustrate it. As a corrective to Mouchy’s romantic humanism, vivisection cartoon.jpgthen, here’s a cartoon from seventy-five or so years later, as published in the Berlin satirical paper Lustige Blätter. “Now, no sentimental nonsense, please!” says this vivisector, mocking the habit of his profession: “The principle of unrestricted research demands the vivisection of this human in the interests of the health of the whole animal kingdom.”



Notes and references:

The image of Mouchy’s leçon is made publicly available on the Wellcome Collection’s web-site, with a few further details, including the Salon’s rejection of the picture, here:

The cartoon image is likewise available here, dated c. 1910, artist not named:

The “upper room” is specified in the gospels according to Mark and Luke, though they also say that it’s a large room, which indeed it would have to be to accommodate twelve at table.

Ouida’s ‘New Priesthood’ article was published in The New Review, vol.VII, pp.151-164.

Stanley Milgram was a professor in social psychology. In his classic series of experiments, the human subjects believed that they were assisting in a study of how humans learn. They were required to use incremental electric shocks upon their unseen but clearly heard students as a way of enforcing memory (the ‘students’ were actors). In reality the point of interest was how far these subjects were willing to go with the supposed shocks in their acceptance of professional authority. See his book Obedience to Authority (Harper and Row, 1974).

The Huxley quotations appear in Paul White, Thomas Huxley: Making the Man of Science, Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp.56, 104, and 106.


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