The Father of American Cartooning
by A Friend
Thomas Nast the cartoonist was born in a Prussian Army barracks in Landau, Bavaria on September 27, 1840. His father, also named Thomas, was a trombonist in the 9th Bavarian Regimental band. His mother was Appolinia Abriss.
Thomas Nast, the father, decided that life in Prussia was repressive. In 1846, he sent his wife, his son Thomas, and his daughter to New York City. In 1850, the father was able to join them after his enlistment ended. He became a member of the New York City Philharmonic Society.
Young Thomas Nast was a very poor student except in the area of art. His teacher recommended that he be sent to an art school. In 1854, he began studying drawing with Alfred Fredericks and Theodore Kaufmann at the National Academy of Design.
At the end of the year, Thomas worked briefly at the Thomas Jefferson Bryant Gallery, working on Christian art. In 1855, at the age of 15, he managed to land a job as a draftsman with FRANK LESLIE"S ILLUSTRATED WEEKLY. He worked on wood engravings for $4.00 per week. Nast was influenced by the drawing of John Leech and John Tenniel.
A drawing of a cartoon lampooning a scandal in the New York City Police Department led to a job with HARPER'S WEEKLY in 1859. In 1860, Nast was sent to England to cover a prizefight (Heenen vs. Sayers). After that, he traveled to Sicily to document Giuseppe Garibaldi's campaign to unify Italy. He was able to send his work to the NEW YORK ILLUSTRATED NEWS, the LONDON ILLUSTRATED NEWS, and LE MONDE ILLUSTRE (Paris).
On February 1, 1861, Nast arrived home completely out of funds. On September 26, 1861, he married Sarah Edwards. They would have five children.
Fletcher Harper of HARPER'S WEEKLY rehired Nast, and in 1862 he began drawing cartoons lampooning those who wanted peace with the south. One depicted Lincoln as a woman. Another, called: "Peace in 1862" castigated northerners who wanted reconciliation.
Soon after that, Nast began traveling to battlefields sending his work back to HARPER'S. The magazine converted the drawings into wood engravings. These delighted Lincoln, who called him: "Our best recruiting sergeant."
In the Christmas season of 1862, Nast drew a classic cartoon of Santa Claus in HARPER'S. This would be evolved years later into the modern version. Another famous wartime cartoon appeared on September 3, 1864. It depicted a weeping Columbia over the graves of dead Union soldiers, and a disabled Union soldier shaking hands with a well groomed Confederate. It was called: "Compromise with the South," and helped the Lincoln re-election effort.
When the war ended, Nast, a radical Republican, quickly became disenchanted with the Reconstruction policies of president Andrew Johnson, who he dubbed: "King Andy." His political views favored American Indians and Chinese immigrants. However, he was virulently anti-Irish. He once portrayed an Irishman as a chimpanzee.
Nast did not lack for work after the war. He continued with HARPER'S from 1862 to 1886, publishing over 2200 cartoons. In 1866, he drew a series of 60 caricatures of well known men. In 1867, he drew 33 large drawings depicting recent events in American history.
In 1868, Nast , who was a personal friend of Ulysses Grant (As well as Mark Twain) began a campaign to boost Grant's presidential run. Better known at this time, he began to expose the criminal dealings of: "Boss" William Mageur Tweed's political machine in New York City. He created the character of the "Tammany Tiger" as the symbol of that organization.
In 1869, HARPER'S refused pressure to fire Nast. Nast refused a bribe of $500,000., which was 100 times his salary at HARPER'S. The crusade continued. A famous cartoon published on August 19, 1871 showed the Tweed gang standing in a cicle with each man pointing to his right. It was called: "Who Stole the Peoples' Money?" As a result of this, the Tweed gang was thrown out of office in November of 1871. Nast's fame grew. He was called the: "Prince of Caricatures."
In 1872, Nast moved his family to Morristown, New Jersey. It would be his home for the rest of his life. He also began publishing: NAST'S ILLUSTRATED ALMANAC.
President Grant ran for re-election that year. Nast savagely attacked his opponent, Horace Greeley. Greeley was soundly defeated.
In 1873, Nast went on a lecture tour. He drew caricatures on the stage with great rapidity.
By 1874, Thomas Nast's contributions to the American political system were already significant. They included the figures of the Republican elephant and the Democrat donkey. Other characters were the English: "John Bull" and the Chinese: "John Chinaman." He also added whiskers to the earlier version of: "Uncle Sam." A famous cartoon in 1875 depicted catholic bishops as crocodiles.
In the disputed presidential election of 1876, Nast supported Rutherford B. Hayes. Hayes was given the presidency by gaining the electoral votes of the states in dispute, and federal troops were withdrawn from the south.
Also in 1876, William Tweed, who had fled New York City to avoid prosecution, was arrested in Italy. The customs official there could not speak English. However, he recognized Tweed from a caricature that he had seen. Nast's stature rose even more. In 1879, he was given a silver cup by friends in the Army and the Navy. By 1880, he had a huge income and was a wealthy man.
Nast had supported Republican candidates in the presidential elections in 1864, 1868, 1872, 1876, and 1880, but in 1884 he deserted the Republicans (Becoming a : "Mugwump"). The reason was that he distrusted James Blaine, and wanted to see the civil service reformed. He supported Grover Cleveland, and Cleveland won. Some called Nast the: "Presidential Maker."
In 1885, Nast went on another lecture tour. He did caricatures, and also landscapes in oil onstage. The tour went well, but in that year, Nast lost his fortune in a Wall Street scandal.
In 1886, Nast quit HARPER'S. His friend, Clement Harper, had died in 1877. He got along less well with the new editor, George Curtis. The following year, Nast went on a third lecture tour.
In 1890, he published: THOMAS NAST'S CHRISTMAS DRAWINGS FOR THE HUMAN RACE. By 1892, he had evolved the modern version of Santa Claus. He places Santa at the North Pole, and thus not a citizen of any country. The popularity of Santa led to the establishment of December 25th as a national holiday, for which most Americans soon became grateful.
Less successful in 1892 was: NAST'S WEEKLY, a magazine that failed after six months. That year also saw Nast return to the Republican fold, supporting Benjamin Harrison's presidential re-election campaign. However, Grover Cleveland won.
As the 1890s progressed, Nast's income began to dry up. His problems by 1902 led President Theodore Roosevelt to appoint him US Consul to Guayaquil, Ecuador. Soon after his arrival there, an epidemic of yellow fever broke out. Nast refused to leave, and soon was taken ill with the fever. On December 7, 1902, Thomas Nast, the: "Father of American Cartooning," the: "Father of American Caricature," the: "Prince of Caricaturists," and the: "Presidential Maker," died.
Nast's body was returned to New York City. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
In 1904, a biography of Thomas Nast was published by Albert Bigelow Paine. It was titled: THOMAS NAST, HIS PERIOD AND HIS PICTURES." In 1927, Nast's son, Cyril, published: THOMAS NAST AS I KNEW HIM.
Thomas Nast's work greatly strengthened the political cartoon as a force in American politics. His drawings and paintings are also credited with influencing artists, most notably the European artists , Edgar Degas and Vincent Van Gogh.
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