Essay: Thomas Nast by Eleanor Smith

he has been called, perhaps not with accuracy, but with substantial justice, the Father of American Caricature"; so states Thomas Nastís 1902 obituary in the legendary Harperís Weekly. Few cartoonists have influenced American politics, sentiments, pop-culture, and opinion as have the drawings of Thomas Nast. A constant in shaping the American way of life, Nastís cartoons and drawings are as well-known today as in the late 1800ís when they were at the height of their reign. Beginning with the Civil War, Nast and his art played a crucial role in molding the history of this nation. From influencing vital elections to bringing justice to the corrupt "Boss" Tweed to publishing radically liberal sentiments to popularizing our modern day Santa Claus, Thomas Nast defined an era. There are many reasons for his popularity and longevity in his field. Nast was a smart liberal with strong views who worked hard to position himself in a place where he could communicate to the American public. Aside from these factors, however, Nast was an amazingly talented artist. With the marrying of great artistic abilities and a strong sense of the American way, Nastís drawings are just as relevant and educational today as they were when he first published them.

Thomas Nast
Born in Landau, Germany in 1840, Thomas and his mother moved to New York City in 1846 with his father coming along a few years later. Nast first studied his love of art at the age of 14 with Theodore Kaufmann and the next year began work at the Thomas Jefferson Bryan Gallery of Christian Art. At the young age of 15 Nast was hired as a reportorial artist for Frank Leslieís Illustrated Newspaper and then in 1859 moved to the New York Illustrated News. Throughout this time Nast was working solely as a reportorial artist. He would be sent out on assignments, recreate what he saw, and then send his drawing back to the papers. Once back at the paper, Nastís drawings were transferred to wood engravings there were then printed as a two page spread. "He drew backwards directly on the boxwood printing blocks with a soft pencil. His heavy use of cross-hatching provided tonality for the back and white drawings" (www.lib.ohio-state.edu). Wood engravings were immensely popular in this day. In 1862, Nast had quite a bit of freelance work behind him and this soon developed into a position at Harperís Weekly. From here, his real career began as he was able to draw freely and reach a wide audience.

 

"Thomas Nastís first opportunity to influence American sentiment came with the Civil War. His commentary on that struggle is an evocative record of its development into a contest between opposing ideologies. At the same time, his work contributed largely to the appearance of a Northern sentiment that made the preservation of the Union and the end of slavery inseparable causes" (Keller 11). As expected, Nast was a ferocious supporter of the Union and his drawings depicted this to no end. It was also during this time that Nast was able to really achieve strong credibility in the world of political cartoonists. The popularity of many drawings attests to this credibility but one in particular stands out. Published in Harperís Weekly on September 3, 1864 the drawing entitled "Compromise with the South" is deemed to have brought Nast instant fame. The drawing shows "ÖColumbia weeping at the grave of 'Union Heroes in a Useless War' " as a weary Union amputee shakes the hand of a neatly groomed Southern soldier" (www.lib.ohio-state.edu).

It is my opinion that the popularity for these Civil War era drawings came about on many fronts and for many reasons. As stated, Nast was beautifully talented as an artist. However, these drawings evoke emotion, for they tell a story. In most of them there isnít just one thing going on. There is a central figure or picture with words and other drawings and stories surrounding it. This technique makes it an easy scene to follow while also giving the "reader" a good amount of information without being overbearing. Because of this technique, Nastís drawings could reach a wide demographic and people of all educational backgrounds could discern something of his meanings.

 

Although this talent of reaching a wide demographic was a positive thing for Nast and his popularity, there were those that were affected negatively by this gift, namely "Boss" Tweed. Ruling Tammany Hall and New York City from 1866 to 1871, William M. "Boss" Tweed and his band of politicos made the Tweed Ring a corrupt addition to an already corrupt city. Nast and Tweed clashed on every level imaginable. "Tweed, then, was Thomas Nastís political antichrist for an interlocking set of reasons" (Keller 179). Tweed, an Irish-Catholic and Nast a Protestant, Nast a Republican and Tweed a Democrat, Nast a morally committed political satirist and Tweed a corrupt politician out for personal gain, the two were obviously destined to never be friends. Nast led an attack against Tweed and his Ring with the help of his employer Harperís Weekly and the famed New York Times. Indicting Tweed on counts of "massive contract padding and other Ring frauds" (Keller 180) led to two years of court trials and a final sentencing of twelve years in prison for the Boss. Though he would never return to power, Tweed escaped from jail, hid in New Jersey, then in Spain, and was finally caught and again put in prison. During the time of his reign and Nastís attack, Tweed was documented in saying "Stop them damn pictures. I don't care what the papers write about me. My constituents can't read. But, damn it, they can see the pictures" (www.lib.ohio-state.edu).  

 

Though much of Thomas Nastís work is defined by its political associations and satires, it is just part of his complete portfolio. Defining what America today knows as Santa Claus, Nast has a plethora of Christmas drawings that may even be more of a testament to his importance than his political cartoons. "Thomas Nastís book, 'Christmas Drawings for the Human Race'Öwas published in time for the 1890 Christmas season. It contained pictures that had appeared in Christmas issues of Harperís over a period of thirty years as well as some drawn especially for inclusion in the book. The five Nast children were used frequently as models in many of the drawings and many scenes from the Nast home were incorporated also" (Nast St. Hill, vi). Nast took much of his inspiration from the Clement Moore poem "Night before Christmas". However, many of his drawings came strictly from his own imagination. Thomas Nast St. Hill has said that "Santaís workshop at the North Pole was also a product of Nastís imagination". After the success of his published book, Nast spent a great deal of time painting in oils. Moving away from current political events and appreciating his strictly artistic endeavors gave Nast a chance to become recognized for something other than governmental satire. Though he is still widely known for his political influences, I would have to say that his drawings of Santa Claus and Christmas scenes have influenced a greater majority over a greater length of time.

Though Nast had success in the publishing of his Christmas book, by 1890 he was not in a healthy place mentally or professionally. Having left Harperís Weekly in 1886, Nast saw a decline in his work and his inspiration that left him depressed. Desperate for work, Nast attempted to try his hand in oil paintings, most of which depicted recent American history. Unsuccessful in this, he accepted a position in Ecuador appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt and died soon after.

The drawings and cartoons of Thomas Nast were dynamically influential and important in his day and continue to be so in the present. Nast was talented as an artist, had quite an imagination and a fierce political head about him. Without Nastís work, American history much would be different today. There may never be a more significant cartoonist.

oil on canvas
"The Departure Of The 7th Regiment To The War, April 19, 1861", 1869

Works Cited

Keller, Morton. The Art and Politics of Thomas Nast. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
Paine, Albert Bigelow. Thomas Nast His Period and His Pictures. New York: The Pyne Press Princeton, 1904.
Nast St. Hill, Thomas: Introduction. Thomas Nastís Christmas Drawings. By Thomas Nast. New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1978. vi-viii.
Thomas Nast. 2002. The Ohio State University Libraries. 17 July 2004. <http://www.lib.ohio-state.edu/cgaweb/nast/>

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