Born September 26, 1840, in Landau, Germany; immigrated to United States, 1846; died of yellow fever, December 7, 1902, in Guayaquil, Ecuador; son of Joseph Thomas (a musician) and Apollonia (Apers) Nast; married Sallie Edwards, September 26, 1861; children: Julia, Thomas Jr., Edith, Mabel, Cyril. Education: Attended National Academy of Design.
Illustrator and writer. Staff artist at Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, 1855-59, and Harper's Weekly, 1862-86; publisher of Nast's Weekly, 1892-93; U.S. consul general in Guayaquil, Ecuador, 1902.
Regiment Veteran Club, Union League, Players.
Honors, Union League Club of New York City, for services to Federal cause.
Nast's Illustrated Almanac, 1871-1875, Volume 1, McLoughlin (New York, NY), 1870, Volumes 2-5, Harper (New York, NY), 1871-74.
Christmas Drawings for the Human Race, Harper (New York, NY), 1890, published as Thomas Nast's Christmas Drawings for the Human Race, Dover (New York, NY), 1978.
Cartoons and Illustrations of Thomas Nast, Dover (New York, NY), 1974.
The main collections of Thomas Nast's works, papers, scrapbooks, and memorabilia are housed in two institutions in the artist's adopted city of Morristown, New Jersey: the MacCulloch Hall Historical Museum and the Joint Free Public Library of Morristown/Morris Township. The Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremount, OH, houses a collection of notes, photocopies, and sale catalogues related to Nast. Several of Nast's original cartoons are located in the Peter Mayo Collection at the State Historical Society in Columbia, Missouri.
Alice B. Haven, Loss and Gain; or, Margaret's Home, Appleton (New York, NY), 1860.
Amusing Stories for Young Folks, Cyrus G. Cooke (Boston, MA), 1861.
Evert Augustus Duyckinck, National History of the War for the Union: Civil, Military and Naval, three volumes, Johnson, Fry (New York, NY), 1861-65.
John Williamson Palmer, editor, Folk Songs, Scribner (New York, NY), 1861.
Clement C. Moore, A Visit from St. Nicholas, L. Prang, 1864.
Frank Booth Goodrich, The Tribute Book: A Record of the Munificence, Self-Sacrifice, and Patriotism of the American People during the War for the Union, Derby & Miller (New York, NY), 1865.
Sophie May, Dotty Dimple, Lee & Shepard (Boston, MA), 1865.
Mary Mapes Dodge, Hans Brinker; or, The Silver Skates, James O'Kane (New York, NY), 1865.
Richard Edwards, Analytical First Reader, Taintor Bros. (New York, NY), 1866.
Warren Lee Goss, The Soldier's Story of His Captivity at Andersonville, Belle Isle, and Other Rebel Prisons, Lee & Shepard (Boston, MA), 1866.
George F. Harrington, Inside: A Chronicle of Secession, Harper (New York, NY), 1866.
Charles Dickens, Dickens' Christmas Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton, McLoughlin (New York, NY), 1867.
Petroleum V. Nasby, Swinging Round the Cirkle, Lee & Shepard (Boston, MA), 1867.
William Douglas O'Connor, The Ghost, Putnam (New York, NY), 1867.
Daniel Defoe, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Hurd & Houghton (New York, NY), 1868.
Sophie May, Dotty Dimple at Home, Lee & Shepard (Boston, MA), 1868.
Petroleum V. Nasby, Ekkoes from Kentucky . . . : Being a Perfect Record uv the Ups, Downs, and Experiences uv the Dimocrisy, Lee & Shepard (Boston, MA), 1868.
Oliver Optic, Our Standard Bearer; or, The Life of General Ulysses S. Grant, Lee & Shepard (Boston, MA), 1868.
William Winter, Wonderful Adventures of Humpty Dumpty, McLoughlin (New York, NY), 1868.
The Story of Yankee Doodle Dandy, McLoughlin (New York, NY), 1869.
George P. Webster, Rip Van Winkle, McLoughlin (New York, NY), 1869.
William Swinton, History of the Seventh Regiment, National Guard, State of New York, During the War of the Rebellion, Fields, Osgood (New York, NY), 1870.
George P. Webster, Santa Claus and His Works, McLoughlin (New York, NY), 1870.
Charles Henry Pullen, The Fight at Dame Europa's School, Francis B. Felt (New York, NY), 1871.
Charles Dickens, The Posthumous Papers of the Pick-wick Club, Harper (New York, NY), 1873.
Vieux Moustache, Boarding-School Days, Hurd & Houghton (New York, NY), 1873.
Josh Billings, Everybody's Friend; or, Josh Billings' Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor, American Publishing (Hartford, CT), 1874.
Henry W. Shaw, Josh Billings: His Works Complete, G. W. Charleton (New York, NY), 1876.
David Ames Wells, Robinson Crusoe's Money; or, Remarkable Financial Fortunes of Remote Island Community, Harper (New York, NY), 1876.
(With Arthur B. Frost) Charles Dickens, Pictures from Italy, Sketches by Boz, and American Notes, Harper (New York, NY), 1877.
Pictorial War Record, Volume 1, Stearns (New York, NY), c. 1881.
Charles Carleton Coffin, The Boys of '61; or, Four Years of Fighting, Estes & Lauriat (Boston, MA), 1882.
Frederick Saunders, Salad for the Solitary and the Social, Robert Bentley (London, England), 1885, Thomas Whittaker (New York, NY), 1886.
Grover Cleveland, The President's Message: 1887, Putnam (New York, NY), 1888.
Rufus E. Shapley, Solid for Mulhooly: A Political Satire, Gebbie (Philadelphia, PA), 1889.
Edgar Fawcett, A New York Family, Cassell, 1891.
Marcus Wright, editor, Official and Illustrated War Record, [Washington, DC], 1899.
The Stock Exchange in Caricature, Volume 1, Abram Stone (New York, NY), 1904.
Betty Chancellor, A Child's Christmas Cookbook, Denver Art Museum (Denver, CO), 1964.
Also illustrator of other volumes. Contributor to periodicals, including Vanity Fair, London Illustrated News, New York Illustrated News, Riverside, Harper's Young People, Collier's, Phunny Phellow, Time, New York Recorder, and Insurance Observer.
Thomas Nast was one of America's most significant illustrators. He was staggeringly prolific and popular from the Civil War to the turn of the century, and he wielded enormous influence in those years. "Thomas Nast," wrote Richard Calhoun in Contemporary Graphic Artists, "towers over the history of American cartooning as no other artist does." Felicia A. Piscitelli, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, likewise expressed high regard for Nast's achievements. "Regarded as America's greatest caricaturist," wrote Piscitelli, "Nast's more than three thousand cartoons and illustrations brought freshness and originality as well as political relevance to the American art scene." Nast is credited with creating the popular conceptions of Santa Claus and Uncle Sam, and with inventing the donkey and elephant as the symbols for the Democrat and Republican Parties. He is also credited with helping to bring down the corrupt New York politician Boss Tweed.
Nast was born in Landau, Germany, in 1840. Piscitelli recounted: "His family was imbued with the liberal, anticlerical, romantic, and nationalistic attitudes prevalent in Germany during much of the nineteenth century. Apparently Nast's father, a trombonist with the Ninth Regiment Bavarian Band, was outspoken in his political opinions and decided that America would provide a better environment for his family. Nast, his mother, and an older sister named Caterina immigrated to the United States in 1846 and settled in New York City; his father finished his term of service and arrived in 1850. At first young Nast did not speak any English, so he attended schools where German was an accepted language." By all accounts the family made a comfortable home in their adopted land; the elder Nast found work as a musician with the city's Philharmonic Society and the younger grew up much like any other city-bred boy. The only reported discord in the home was Nast's disinterest in school work. Despite a parental wish that he study music or learn some practical trade, young Tom's consuming passion was drawing, a passion to which he held with such firmness that he was at length permitted to take private lessons with Theodor Kaufmann, another German emigre whose specialty was historical painting. Later Nast enrolled at the Academy of Design, where he studied under Alfred Frederickson. In addition to these formal studies, Nast also spent much of his spare time studying and copying such classic works as were available in the city's museums and private galleries.
Finds Work as a Newspaper Illustrator
Nast's original aspiration was to become an orthodox academic painter of symbolic historical scenes. But he also apparently felt some pressure to demonstrate to his skeptical parents that his studies did have some practical value. Thus, at age fifteen he walked into the office of the recently launched Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and asked the proprietor for a job as an illustrator. Henry Carter thought to discourage the lad by sending him out to sketch a crowd scene; but so impressive was the result of this commission that he ended by hiring the boy at a salary of four dollars per week and Nast began his apprenticeship with Leslie's. According to Piscitelli, Nast's years at Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly constituted "a paid apprenticeship in the field of pictorial journalism."
During a tour of Europe, Nast produced popular illustrations of Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi's conflict with Sicilian rulers. "This was Garibaldi's most crucial campaign in forming a united kingdom of Italy under Victor Emmanuel II, proclaimed in 1861 after Nast had returned to the United States," Piscitelli maintained. Nast was covering political events upon his arrival home. "On 19 February 1861, only days after his return to America, Nast covered the reception of newly elected President Abraham Lincoln in New York and went on to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., for the inauguration," Piscitelli wrote. On September 26, 1861, Nast married Sarah Edwards. The couple were to have five children together.
In 1862 Nast began producing Civil War illustrations for the Unionist Harper's Weekly. When editor Fletcher Harper hired the twenty-two-year-old Nast, it was plain the magazine was getting a highly competent technical artist with the proven ability to produce quality work under the pressure of weekly deadlines. The astute publisher also discerned in the young man's work a singular ability to convey ideas and emotions, a degree of visual eloquence lacking in the work of more conventional illustrators. A partisan of great energy and force himself, Harper had not mistaken his man. With the publisher's encouragement and America's most widely read periodical for a forum, Nast lost little time in proving himself as ardent and effective a partisan as his employer. During the darkest years of the Civil War he roused an increasingly war-weary northern population again and again by his unprecedented ability to infuse the abstract ideal of Unionism with emotional urgency. His use of allegorical figures and images the weeping widow of the North, the cat o' nine tails for the South and melodramatic tableaux, created as much from his own intense convictions as from reality, moved President Abraham Lincoln to refer to Nast as "our best recruiting sergeant." There is little disagreement among historians that Nast's savage assaults on the Democratic Party's "Peace" campaign of 1864 so effectively labeled General McClellan's candidacy as cowardly as to play an important role in turning the election narrowly in Lincoln's favor.
By the war's end, Nast had honed the instincts of the editorial cartoonist to razor sharpness—a sharpness he continued to employ to good effect between 1866 and 1868 against Lincoln's successor, President Andrew Johnson. Nast regarded Johnson as inexcusably soft on the defeated South. During this period Nast also experimented with painting and book illustration. These genres helped him to perfect his incisive linear style, gave him invaluable training in portraiture, and taught him how to condense complex ideas into single dramatic pictures.
Takes on the Corrupt Tweed Ring
In 1870 Nast undertook what Calhoun called "the crusade that has been called arguably the greatest sustained outpouring of effective, high quality political caricature in the history of editorial cartooning." Nast's crusade was directed against New York City's powerful "Tweed Ring," a group of four corrupt Democrat politicians. Part of New York's Tammany Hall political machine, these politicians had taken an already corrupt system specializing in buying votes, giving overpaid city jobs to their friends, charging exorbitant rents for public housing, and naturalizing immigrants for cash and took it to new levels of municipal thievery. Nast created savagely memorable caricatures of Mayor A. Oakley Hall (or as Nast often spelled it, "Haul"), Comptroller Richard ("Slippery Dick") Connolly, Peter B. ("Brains") Sweeny, and above all William Marcy ("Boss") Tweed. Fusing genuine personal outrage with a slashing, vigorous style, the artist turned Tweed, with his vast paunch and broad, bearded face dominated by a pair of small, avaricious eyes, into an almost universal personification of the bloated, grasping politician, while portraying the fashionable, bespectacled Mayor Hall as the ideal front man, busily plying a broom in a burlesque of cleanliness while his Tweed Ring cohorts plotted some new atrocity against the city treasury.
Allegedly offered a bribe of a half million dollars, which he indignantly spurned, then threatened with bodily harm, whereupon he moved his family to New Jersey, Nast responded by escalating his attacks, particularly after the New York Times began publishing detailed accounts of the various frauds perpetrated by Tweed and his gang. Among the classic Nast drawings from this time are "Who Stole the People's Money? T'Was Him," in which the four Tweed Ring members are standing in a circle, each one pointing to the member on his right, "It Will All Blow Over Let Us Prey," in which the four politicians, depicted as vultures, are cowering on a mountainous cliff as a storm gathers overhead, and "The Tammany Tiger Loose What Are You Going to Do about It?," in which Boss Tweed, dressed as an ancient Roman Caesar, directs his tiger to tear apart the figure of New York in the Coliseum. While Boss Tweed was untroubled by the printed exposes of his massive corruption, claiming that "my constituents can't read," he despised Nast's "damned pictures" because even his illiterate supporters could understand their message. By reducing Tweed and his cronies to figures of ridicule, Nast's cartoons robbed them of the dignity of their offices, and once it became possible to laugh at them, their power, based on an image of arrogant invincibility, could be broken. The 1871 municipal elections, in which the Tweed Ring was contested by a group of reform candidates, turned the Tammany machine out of office; Tweed was later prosecuted on fraud charges. Oddly enough Nast was also instrumental in keeping Tweed in jail. When Tweed broke out and fled to Spain in 1876, the authorities there identified him from a Nast caricature supplied by the U.S. consulate, who did not have a photograph of the fugitive available.
As brilliantly vitriolic as his anti-Ring drawings were, Nast eclipsed even that standard in his 1872 crusade against the "Liberal Republican" presidential candidacy of New York Tribune publisher Horace Greeley, whom he regarded as too lenient in his attitude toward the defeated South and very much an opportunistic latecomer to the anti-Ring crusade. Greeley, with his floppy hat, round spectacles, long coattails, ceaseless activity, and voluminous opinions, was a target tailor-made for Nast's parody. Nast depicted a wheedling, sweating, desperate Greeley clasping hands with anyone who could help him win election, including the Ku Klux Klan, Boss Tweed, the Roman Catholic Church (one of Nast's perennial enemies), John Wilkes Booth, and Satan himself.
Literally every detail of these drawings told against their hapless victim, but perhaps the cleverest stroke of all was Nast's treatment of Greeley's running mate, the aptly named B. Gratz Brown of Missouri. Unable to find a photograph of Brown to caricature, Nast hit upon the brilliantly expedient idea of turning the vice presidential candidate into a name tag, "& Gratz Brown," and fastening the tag to Greeley's coattails as a kind of afterthought. Often the tag was partially obscured, sometimes the "z" in Gratz was childishly reversed, and on one occasion when Greeley was presented as a small, bespectacled mouse, the tiny rodent's tail was inscribed with Brown's name. As Nast's grandson remarked of this inspired bit of ridicule: "One can almost hear people asking 'Gratz who?'" It was later suggested that the savagery of Nast's attacks contributed to Greeley's death shortly after the failed campaign and, despite the implausible nature of the charge, that it could even be suggested shows how devastating Nast's cartoons were felt to be.
The 1870s found Nast at his most effective. His inventiveness, his mastery of the woodblock technique, and his partisan passions were all at their zenith. During this period he invented the Democrat donkey (during the 1874 election) and Republican elephant (1877) symbols. "No American election since Nast's lifetime would be complete without the Republican elephant and Democratic donkey symbols the artist created," as Piscitelli maintained. He also created the popular image of Uncle Sam during this time. Nast was a strong supporter of General Ulysses S. Grant for president in 1868 and 1872. "Grant was said to have credited his election in large part to General Sheridan's sword and Nast's cartoons," according to Piscitelli.
The death of Fletcher Harper in 1877 hit Nast hard. Harper had been his strongest supporter at Harper's Weekly. The new editors wanted firmer control over his artwork. Nor were changes in staff his only worry. In 1880 Harper's went from the woodblock engravure reproduction technique (of which Nast was an acknowledged master) to a photochemical process which required him to execute his originals in pen and ink. This had a noticeably adverse impact on his work; the bold line and elaborate crosshatching gave way to the comparatively weak and faded productions of a man no longer in command of his craft.
The Creation of Santa Claus
In 1864, Nast had illustrated Clement Clarke Moore's famous holiday poem The Night Before Christmas. In addition, every December, he produced Christmas illustrations for Harper's Weekly. In these works, he popularized a conception of Santa Claus as a chubby, bearded, jolly fellow with a home at the North Pole and a sleigh drawn by a team of reindeer. Based on traditional German and Dutch stories of the famous character, Nast's version made the character familiar to millions of American children. According to Piscitelli, "A generation of readers looked forward to the Christmas issues of Harper's Weekly, and many people collected them. These endearing illustrations reveal a gentler side of Nast than his political cartoons. In them he indulged his childlike love of home, family, and Yule-tide celebration. Moore had made Saint Nicholas a pipe-smoking, 'jolly old elf'; evidently under Dutch influence his name became Santa Claus. It was Nast, however, who gave the fat, fun-loving, generous saint his modern form, making a home for him at the North Pole, which was far enough away to be almost imaginary and, incidentally, politically neutral. The children in the pictures were modeled after those of the artist, and the fireplace decorated with images from Mother Goose rhymes was an actual fixture in Nast's home in Morristown, New Jersey. The appearance of nursery rhymes in some of the Christmas drawings, while apt, was an apparent coincidence; both Mother Goose and Santa Claus inhabit the worlds of childhood and fantasy. It is curious that Nast's plump, bearded, and smiling Santa Claus looks like the good-natured artist himself in his later portraits."
To overcome his financial difficulties, Nast in 1892 formed his own publication, Nast's Weekly, but that publication lasted only until the next year. He tried his hand at paintings on Civil War themes, but they did not generate enough revenue to pay off his debt. Nearly a decade later, still wallowing in financial turmoil, Nast accepted President Theodore Roosevelt's generous offer of a consulate position in Ecuador. That commission enabled Nast to resolve his financial difficulties, but it also resulted in his death. He arrived in Ecuador on July 1, 1902, soon caught yellow fever, and died on December 7th at the age of sixty-two.
If you enjoy the works of Thomas Nast
If you enjoy the works of Thomas Nast, you might want to check out the following books:
Roger A. Fischer, Them Damn Pictures: Explorations in American Political Cartoon Art, 1996.
Stephen Hess and Sandy Northrop, Drawn and Quartered: The History of American Political Cartoons, 1996.
Robert L. Patten, George Cruikshank's Life, Times, and Art: 1835-1878, 1996.
Although Nast's reputation had declined somewhat in the years preceding his death, he has since come to be regarded as the leading American illustrator of his time, and images such as Uncle Sam, Santa Claus, and the Republican and Democrat symbols remain prominent features in American life. In 1986, the Thomas Nast Society was founded in Morristown, New Jersey, Nast's long-time home, by the MacCulloch Hall Historical Museum and the Joint Free Public Library of Morristown/Morris Township. The Society publishes the annual Journal of the Thomas Nast Society, the semiannual newsletter, The Nasthead, preserves examples of Nast's work, and provides a forum for scholars studying Nast's career. His house in Morristown, New Jersey, has been declared a national historic landmark, and in 1956 the U.S. government placed a plaque commemorating Thomas Nast in the barracks in Landau-Pfalz, Germany, the city where he was born.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Contemporary Graphic Artists, Volume 1, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 188: American Book and Magazine Illustrators to 1920, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.
Hoff, Syd, Boss Tweed and the Man Who Drew Him, Coward (New York, NY), 1978.
Keller, Morton, The Art and Politics of Thomas Nast, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1968.
Murrell, William A., A History of American Graphic Humor, Macmillan for the Whitney Museum of Art (New York, NY), Volume 1, 1933, Volume 2, 1938.
Paine, Albert Bigelow, Thomas Nast: His Period and His Pictures, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1906, reprinted, Chelsea House (New York, NY), 1981.
Vinson, John C., Thomas Nast, Political Cartoonist, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 1967.
American Artist, December, 1974, pp. 56-57.
American Art Journal, spring, 1972, Albert Boime, "Thomas Nast and French Art," pp. 43-65; Volume 19, 1987, Wendy Wiek Reaves, "Thomas Nast and the President," pp. 60-71.
American Heritage, Volume 22, Number 6, 1971, Thomas Nast St. Hill, "His Grandson Recalls the Life and Death of Thomas Nast," pp. 81-96.
American Opinion, February, 1977.
Choice, November, 1974.
Hayes Historical Journal, Number 8, 1989, "Thomas Nast in the Age of Grant," pp. 52-60.
Journal of the Thomas Nast Society, 1986—.
New York Historical Society Quarterly, Number 49, 1965, Alexander B. Callow, Jr., "What Are You Going to Do about It?: The Crusade against the Tweed Ring," pp. 117-142.
Observer, December 15, 1974.
Scholastic Update, October 4, 1996.*
BORN: September 26, 1840 • Landau, Germany
DIED: December 7, 1902 • Guayaquil, Ecuador
Illustrator; political cartoonist
Thomas Nast's political cartoons and caricatures (cartoon representations of people that emphasize and exaggerate their subjects' most prominent features) influenced American political culture like no art ever had. His art played a key role in bringing to justice a corrupt politician. One cartoon in particular has been credited with helping to reelect Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) in 1864. Nast used his pen as if it were a sword to fight for causes he felt were worthy and necessary. By the time of his death at age sixty-two, Nast had spent forty-seven years as a cartoonist and had illustrated more than one hundred books.
"Nast is often spoken of as the first great American cartoonist. In a very real sense he was the last."
—Writer William Murrell
Finds his purpose in New York
Thomas Nast was born in Landau, Germany, on September 26, 1840. Germany's political climate during that decade was one of revolution (uprisings by common people against the government). Nast's father wanted to send his family to safety. In 1846, Nast, his mother, and his sister sailed to New York City; Nast's father joined them three years later, after his military service was over.
Nast and his sister were sent to public school in New York. Nast, however, had difficulty adjusting to his new surroundings and culture. Nast did not speak English, which made schoolwork even harder for him. After years of not doing his work and not caring about school, Nast still could not read and write and was in danger of flunking out. Instead of doing his homework, Nast spent time with a neighbor who made crayons and candles for a living. Young Nast would take any rejected crayons and spend hours drawing. It became clear that the twelve-year-old Nast would not ever put forth the effort to read and write, but he did have a natural talent for drawing. His school teacher suggested to his parents that the boy be taken out of regular school and enrolled in art school.
Nast's parents followed the advice. Nast spent the next three years learning drawing techniques. When finances became difficult for the family, Nast quit school and looked for work. Nast, never an athletic boy, experienced weight problems throughout his youth; manual labor was not an option for him. The only skill he had was drawing. Unfortunately, because he was just fifteen years old, no one was willing to risk hiring him outright as an illustrator. In the 1850s, most illustrators began their careers as apprentices, youngsters who work with experts to learn their skills. Apprentices were not always paid, and if they were, the pay was minimal.
Nast could not afford to apprentice to an illustrator. He had faith that his level of drawing ability was high enough to secure a position as an illustrator on his own. Nast tried to make an appointment with the publisher of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, a popular publication in 1855. After several failed attempts to see Leslie, Nast took matters into his own hands one day and snuck past the receptionist and into Leslie's office. The publisher admired the boy's courage. He gave Nast a test assignment, intended more to make him leave than to encourage him. He instructed Nast to go to a ferry (a boat carrying passengers) dock at rush hour and draw a picture of the crowd.
Nast took this assignment seriously and returned to Leslie's office the following morning, illustration in hand. Leslie was impressed with Nast's talent and hired him. Nast stayed with the publication until 1858, when it developed financial problems and he was laid off.
Finds fame at Harper's Weekly
Nast took a job with the New York Illustrated News, a competitor of Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. His new job required worldwide travel, and Nast enjoyed his visits to countries such as England and Italy. In 1861, he married Sarah Edwards; the couple would eventually have five children: Julie, Thomas Jr., Edith, Mabel, and Cyril.
While working for the New York Illustrated News, Nast began drawing political cartoons as a freelance (self-employed) artist. He sent these cartoons to various publications, including the popular Harper's Weekly, the leading illustrated newspaper of the nineteenth century. By the summer of 1862, Nast was a full-time employee of Harper's. Assigned to the battlefields of the raging Civil War (1861–65), he drew and sent back sketches of battle scenes. Once in New York, the sketches were given to engravers (skilled artists who cut illustrations into blocks of wood) who transformed them into wood engravings. These engravings included all the tiny details of Nast's large, complex sketches, which were often printed across two pages.
Like his father before him, Nast was a liberal, someone who believes in equality for all people and that change is progress if it is for the betterment of everyone. He was absolutely opposed to slavery, and so supported the Union (North) in the Civil War. Nast, though illiterate (unable to read or write), used his illustrations to communicate his political beliefs. On September 3, 1864, Harper's Weekly made Nast famous with its publication of his sketch titled "Compromise with the South." The sketch shows Columbia (symbol for the Americas) crying over the grave of Union heroes. A Northern Union soldier, who has lost one leg in the war, shakes the hand of a well-dressed, uninjured Southern Rebel soldier. At that point in the war, it seemed as if the Union was sure to lose. Nast's illustration reflected his disappointment and sympathy for the side he believed was defending justice. That sketch was reprinted in publications across the country. Many historians credit Nast's drawing with helping to reelect Abraham Lincoln to the U.S. presidency.
Takes on Tammany Hall
Nast's fame brought him a great deal of freelance work after the war. He began illustrating books at this time, work that he would do his entire life. All the while, he continued working at Harper's.
In 1868, Nast turned his attention to New York City politics in general, focusing on William "Boss" Tweed (1823–1878) in particular. Tweed was an elected Democratic official on New York City's council who had served since 1851. Through the years, Tweed gained a great deal of power, mainly through corrupt business dealings. He and his friends were known as the Tweed Ring. Their headquarters were in a building known as Tammany Hall.
By appointing unqualified but grateful friends to high and powerful positions in city politics, Tweed and his ring managed to have a bill passed in 1870 that gave him complete authority of the city's treasury. He immediately began awarding valuable contracts to his friends, who in turn paid him large sums of money for the work he sent their way.
Tweed's crimes were many. For example, he faked leases on city-owned buildings, padded bills with charges for repairs that never happened, and bought overpriced goods and services from suppliers controlled by the ring. Altogether, the corrupt politicians stole between $30 million and $200 million from the city between 1865 and 1871.
Nast did not approve of Boss Tweed and his ring. He used his public forum to inform readers of Tweed's criminal activity. He regularly caricatured Tweed as a criminal and invented the "Tammany Tiger" to represent Tweed's ring. When Tweed discovered Nast's personal campaign to bring him down, the Boss offered the cartoonist $500,000 to put an end to his scheme. Although it was one hundred times more than his yearly salary, Nast refused the money. Not ready to give up, Tweed went directly to Harper's Weekly and tried to force the owners to fire Nast.
As reported in a Thomas Nast biography published on the Ohio State University Libraries: Cartoon Research Library Web site, Tweed sent his cronies to the publishing offices with this sentiment: "Stop them damn pictures. I don't care what the papers write about me. My constituents [people in his voting district] can't read. But, damn it, they can see the pictures." Harper's refused to fire its star cartoonist, and he kept his drawing campaign moving forward. In November 1871, Tweed and his ring were voted out of office. Tweed was sued by the City and was sent to debtor's prison since he could not pay the fine. He escaped and fled to Spain in 1876. He was recognized there and arrested by a customs official who had seen Nast's caricatures of the corrupt politician. Tweed died in prison in 1878.
Nast was, by standards of the day, a rich man by 1880. Harper's Weekly paid him an annual salary of $20,000. He received an additional $150 for every engraving published. Nast owned property in Harlem, New York, valued at $90,000, and owned another $60,000 in government bonds. His home, which was completely paid for, was valued at $100,000. But the majority of his income came from lectures to art students.
Nast used his popularity to sway public opinion, and Harper's knew they had a gold mine in the illustrator. Circulation increased as Nast's popularity grew, and his influence became enormous (see box).
Decline of popularity
Times were changing, though, and Nast did not want to change with them. Nast's popularity was declining. One of the primary factors influencing this decline was the change in American society as leisure time increased throughout the 1870s. Readers once relied solely on newspapers for their information on everything from politics to business. Now they expected to find amusement and entertainment in newspapers and magazines as well. They wanted publishers to provide them with information on fashion, family matters, and events happening around town. To do this, newspapers had to either grow in page count, which was costly, or limit the amount of space dedicated to current events and politics.
How Thomas Nast Left His Mark on America
Aside from the obvious influence Nast had on American culture and society, he left legacies he probably never imagined he would:
- Created his first drawing of Santa Claus, an image that for Americans remains the model of this famous figure.
- Used a donkey to represent the Democratic Party in a cartoon. Nast used an elephant to symbolize the Republican Party. Modern politics continues to use the donkey for Democrats, the elephant for Republicans.
- Developed John Chinaman, a sympathetic Chinese immigrant, to symbolize all Chinese immigrants in the United States. John Chinaman was the subject of several songs written during the Gilded Age and was written about by Mark Twain (1835–1910; see entry). This caricature eventually came to be perceived as a negative stereotype.
At that same time, Fletcher Harper (1806–1877), publisher and founder of Harper's Weekly, died and left the publication to Joseph W. Harper Jr. (1830–1896). Nast did not enjoy the editorial freedom under his new boss that he had become accustomed to, and he would not draw cartoons that went against his personal politics. His editor refused to allow Nast to publish cartoons that went against the publication's editorial positions. As Harper's changed its focus to that of a more general content, Nast found himself without much to say.
Nast's position was also affected by changes in the printing process. Woodblocks were no longer used by 1880, when photochemical processes replaced them. As a result, Nast's sketches looked harsh and angry because lines that had been softened by the engraving process were now more solid. Nast left the newspaper in 1886, after having contributed about twenty-two hundred cartoons, and freelanced for several years. He established his own publication, Nast's Weekly, in 1892, but the venture failed within six months.
A tragic end, a lasting legacy
Having gone through his savings, Nast was desperate for work by 1902. His friend, U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; served 1901–9; see entry), offered him an appointment to serve as consul general (diplomat who represents the United States and handles issues related to individuals and businesses within the other country) in Ecuador. Nast accepted the appointment, but died of yellow fever within six months of leaving the United States.
Nast remains an icon (hero) of his profession in the twenty-first century. He was a paradox (a combination of opposites) in many ways. A man who could neither read nor write, he earned wealth and fame by influencing America's politics and readers for decades. Having had very little formal education, he made a fair percentage of his income giving lectures to college students. Throughout some of the most major cultural and societal shifts in American history, he maintained his commitment to his art and beliefs.
Illustrations and cartoons by Nast are worth a great deal of money. His Christmas drawings have been compiled and published in book format. His sketches for Harper's Weekly have become collector's items.
For More Information
Pflueger, Lynn. Thomas Nast: Political Cartoonist. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2000.
Shirley, David. Thomas Nast: Cartoonist and Illustrator. New York: Franklin Watts, 1998.
Murrell, William. "Nast, Gladiator of the Political Pencil." American Scholar (Autumn 1936): 472–85.
HarpWeek Presents the World of Thomas Nast.http://www.thomasnast.com/ (accessed on September 4, 2006).
"Political Cartoons of Thomas Nast." United States Senate.http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/art/exhibit/nast_cartoons.htm (accessed on September 4, 2006).
"Thomas Nast Biography." The Ohio State University Libraries: Cartoon Research Library.http://cartoons.osu.edu/nast/bio.htm (accessed on September 4, 2006).
Nast, Thomas 1840-1902
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 Harper’s Weekly magazine, where he worked from 1859 until 1886. Reflecting his emotional responses to the carnage he saw as a war correspondent, Nast’s engravings went beyond reporting and into the realm of the visual editorial. Vivid engravings of the battles of the Civil War (1861–1865), 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, Nast’s work unmasked the political corruption behind the “party boss” system and helped imprison New York’s 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 Nast’s imagery is best expressed by a quote attributed to Tweed himself: “Stop the damned pictures … my constituents can’t 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 Greeley’s run against Ulysses S. Grant. By 1876, his support for Rutherford B. Hayes propelled the candidate to the presidency. The power of Nast’s 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, Nast’s style was pedantic, explicit, and expressed a definitive right-wing stance. His harsh black-and-white lines and crosshatchings for Harper’s Weekly stood in stark contrast to the more subtle irony in his competitors’ illustrations for Puck magazine. Nevertheless, Nast’s 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 Nast’s 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
Fischer, Roger A. 1996. Them Damned Pictures: Exploration in American Political Cartoon Art. North Haven, CT: Archon Book.
Paine, Albert Bigelow. 1974. Thomas Nast: His Period and His Pictures. Princeton, NJ: Pyne Press.
Starr, Roger. Thomas Nast: America’s Premier Political Cartoonist. http://www.city-journal.org/article02.php?aid=1417.
Rita B. Trivedi
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.
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.
Paine, Albert Bigelow, Thomas Nast, his period and his pictures, New York: Chelsea House, 1980. □