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Nast, Thomas

Nast, Thomas 1840-1902

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Thomas Nast both drove and commented on the most pressing questions of his age through evocative engravings and cartoons. Highlighting nationalism, political corruption, and urban poverty, Nast launched a new means of communication that appealed to and touched an entire nation.

Nast gained fame with Harpers Weekly magazine, where he worked from 1859 until 1886. Reflecting his emotional responses to the carnage he saw as a war correspondent, Nasts engravings went beyond reporting and into the realm of the visual editorial. Vivid engravings of the battles of the Civil War (18611865), the patriotic sacrifice needed to preserve the Union, and the harsh realities of slavery made the war real to the average citizen and inspired them to service. One of his most representative images shows Columbia weeping as a tattered Union amputee shakes the hand of a refined Southern soldier. Called Compromise with the South, this use of allegory and warnings against the sacrifice of right in the name of expediency became a powerful tool for the Republican campaign to re-elect President Abraham Lincoln.

As the war ended, Nast turned to immigration, political corruption, and free silver as ripe ground for his images. Moving from commentary to activism, Nasts work unmasked the political corruption behind the party boss system and helped imprison New Yorks infamous Boss Tweed. In a series of cartoons from 1869 to 1872, the artist openly accused Tweed of rigging elections and accepting bribes, all while giving a moral slant to the subject that turned the public against the iron-fisted leader. The power of Nasts imagery is best expressed by a quote attributed to Tweed himself: Stop the damned pictures my constituents cant read, but, damn it, they can see pictures (Fischer 1996, p. 2). In this age of immigration, emotional images appealed to an urban citizenry that was often illiterate yet anxious to make their way in a new country.

Nast aptly demonstrated the role of political cartoons in electoral campaigns. In 1872 his visual barrage of cartoons contributed to the defeat of Horace Greeleys run against Ulysses S. Grant. By 1876, his support for Rutherford B. Hayes propelled the candidate to the presidency. The power of Nasts aura is undeniable: His candidates won seven consecutive presidential elections and his images of the elephant and donkey battles have currency in the twenty-first century.

Depicting a clear line between good and evil, Nasts style was pedantic, explicit, and expressed a definitive right-wing stance. His harsh black-and-white lines and crosshatchings for Harpers Weekly stood in stark contrast to the more subtle irony in his competitors illustrations for Puck magazine. Nevertheless, Nasts methods redefined the political cartoon medium. Instead of relying on the talking bubbles of the eighteenth century, he liberally incorporated labels and allegory to emphasize the character and ideas of his subjects. His ultrarealistic style instantly made a point without requiring lengthy analysis from his audience, a quality still admired in cartoonists in the early twenty-first century. Through Nasts efforts, the political cartoon stepped out of the shadow of commentary and into the realm of activism, where it remains today.

SEE ALSO Cartoons, Political; Media; U.S. Civil War

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Fischer, Roger A. 1996. Them Damned Pictures: Exploration in American Political Cartoon Art. North Haven, CT: Archon Book.

Keller, Morton. 1975. The Art and Politics of Thomas Nast. New York: Oxford University Press.

Paine, Albert Bigelow. 1974. Thomas Nast: His Period and His Pictures. Princeton, NJ: Pyne Press.

Starr, Roger. Thomas Nast: Americas Premier Political Cartoonist. http://www.city-journal.org/article02.php?aid=1417.

Rita B. Trivedi

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Thomas Nast

Thomas Nast

The American caricaturist and painter Thomas Nast (1840-1902) is noted for his political cartoons attacking corruption in New York City government and supporting Radical Reconstruction in the South.

Thomas Nast was born on Sept. 27, 1840, in Ludwig, Bavaria. The family emigrated to the United States in 1846, and Thomas was raised and schooled in New York City. He displayed an early talent for drawing. At the age of 15 he took some drawings to Leslie's Weekly, one of the popular magazines of the day, and was hired as an illustrator. In 1862 he joined Harper's Weekly. Throughout the Civil War he turned out patriotic drawings exhorting Northern readers to help crush the Rebels. Abraham Lincoln called him "our best recruiting sergeant."

By the end of the war Nast and Harper's Weekly had become virtually inseparable, and Nast turned his hand toward attacking President Andrew Johnson's attempts to subvert the Radical Republican Reconstruction program. He hammered away at those who tried to undermine Negro political rights in the South with the same zeal and venom he had used earlier on Rebels.

In attacking Johnson's policies, Nast began to depart from conventional representational illustration by distorting and exaggerating the physical traits of his subjects. Because of the technical skill and the self-righteous fervor he brought to the task, it was often said that the art of political caricature reached a new peak of sophistication and importance in his work.

The heights were probably reached in Nast's unrelenting attack against political corruption in New York City in the early 1870s. Nast's caricatures of William "Boss" Tweed and his henchmen in Tammany Hall (the New York County Democratic political machine) played a major role in defeating the machine and imprisoning Tweed. Nast demonstrated his own incorruptibility by refusing to accept a $200,000 bribe to stop his attacks.

During the political crusades Nast also made what have become his most famous, if not his most important, contributions to American politics: he invented and popularized the Democratic donkey, the Republican elephant, and the Tammany tiger. Nast reached his peak of fame, influence, and wealth in the 1870s. Thereafter he began a long, frustrating decline. Technical changes in magazine reproduction led to the obsolescence of the wood-carved plates at which he excelled. In addition, his continued attempts to reopen the wounds of the Civil War made many people uneasy. Tweed's death in 1878 deprived Nast of another favorite target. Nast tried his hand at attacking various other groups who aroused his ire, such as labor unionists (whom he portrayed as vicious, foreign, bomb-throwing anarchists) and the Catholic Church, but the public failed to respond with the same enthusiasm. His contract with Harper's Weekly terminated in 1884, and his work appeared with decreasing frequency.

In 1902 Nast was rescued from an impecunious end by an admirer, President Theodore Roosevelt, who arranged for his appointment as U.S. consul in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Nast did not really want to go to Guayaquil. However, he was in no position to turn down a steady source of income. He died there of yellow fever on Dec. 7, 1902.

Further Reading

The standard work on Nast is Albert Bigelow Paine, Th. Nast: His Period and His Pictures (1904). Although uncritical and dated in its historical interpretations, Paine's work contains a wealth of information on Nast and examples of much of his work. Morton Keller, The Art and Politics of Thomas Nast (1968), is very good and more balanced in interpretation. The short text in John Chalmers Vinson, Thomas Nast: Political Cartoonist (1967), tends toward the same laudatory tone as Paine but contains 120 pages of large reproductions of Nast's work.

Additional Sources

Paine, Albert Bigelow, Thomas Nast, his period and his pictures, New York: Chelsea House, 1980. □

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Nast, Thomas

Thomas Nast, 1840–1902, American caricaturist, illustrator, and painter, b. Landau, Germany. He was brought to the United States in 1846. He began his career as a draftsman for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and Harper's Weekly. He was sent to England by the New York Illustrated News, served (1860) as artist correspondent in Garibaldi's campaign, contributing sketches to English, French, and American papers, and attracted wide attention with his cartoons of the Civil War, published in Harper's Weekly. He is best known for his clever and forceful political and personal cartoons, which were instrumental in breaking the corrupt Tweed Ring in New York City. It was Nast who created the tiger, the elephant, and the donkey as political symbols of Tammany Hall, the Republican party, and the Democratic party. Nast was also an illustrator of note and a painter in oil. He died at Guayaquil, Ecuador, where he was American consul general.

See biography by F. D. Halloran (2013); study by M. Keller (1968).

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