Cartoon of Thomas Nast by de Grimm

December 20, 1902

de Grimm

Cartoon of Thomas Nast by de Grimm

Arts and Entertainment; Journalists/Journalism;

Nast, Thomas;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

Some time ago Mr. Nast and Mr. De Grimm entered into a competition for drawing cartoons. Mr. De Grimm won, and then drew this picture as a compliment to Mr. Nast, imitating his style, and executing this historic portrait.

It is fitting as the year-end nears to discuss Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly’s premier artist and perhaps the most influential political cartoonist in American history.  The featured caricature appeared in the December 20, 1902 issue, along with an obituary for the artist entitled, “The Great American Cartoonist.”  Over his 45-year career, he drew more than 2200 cartoons and illustrations for Harper’s Weekly, contributed work to several other periodicals, illustrated books, and painted serious historical pictures.  The skill displayed in his work marked a turning point in American political cartooning from a reliance on dialogue to an emphasis on images.  Nast originated many symbols including the Republican Elephant and the Tammany Tiger, and popularized the Democratic Donkey and the image of Santa Claus as a fat, jolly old man. 

During the Civil War, Nast’s memorable depiction of Confederate guerrilla raids and atrocities reportedly led President Abraham Lincoln to call him the Union’s best recruiter.  Two of Nast’s 1864 cartoons were used effectively as campaign posters in Lincoln’s re-election bid.  In fact, Nast’s cartoons played an important role in the election of Republican presidents from Lincoln through James Garfield (1880) and in the “Mugwump” (breakaway Republican) campaign for Democrat Grover Cleveland in 1884.  Nast, however, is probably best remembered for his influential series of political cartoons in 1871-1872 that helped topple from power New York City’s corrupt Tweed Ring, led by “Boss” William M. Tweed. 

Thomas Nast was born in Landau, Bavaria (Germany), on September 27, 1840, and immigrated with his family in 1846 to the United States, settling in New York City.  His talent for drawing manifested itself in his childhood, when he sketched soldiers, firemen, actors, ships, and other scenes from life in antebellum New York.  Nast’s portrait of Louis Kossuth, the famed Hungarian revolutionary, won praise from his teacher and school principal.  Nast’s father was a musician who played in theaters, so his son was exposed to the plays of Shakespeare and other dramatists at an impressionable age.  As an adult, he integrated those characters and themes, especially Shakespearean ones, into his art. 

Nast became a professional illustrator just as American journalism entered a new era in the 1850s with the advent of periodicals combining general-interest content, lavish illustration, and a national subscription base.  In 1856, Frank Leslie (born Henry Carter) hired the 15-year-old Nast as a staff artist for his new weekly, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, where the boy honed his skills and learned how to etch on a woodblock.  Nast also studied the work of cartoonists for Punch, the British magazine, especially their use of symbolic figures like John Bull and the British Lion.  From the satiric art of Honoré Daumier of France and, more directly, Leslie’s campaign against adulterated (“swill”) milk, the young illustrator realized that art could be used to illuminate social problems.

In 1858, Nast covered the boxing championship in Canada between John Heenan and John Morrissey, and the next year began laboring as a free-lance artist.  His first contribution to Harper’s Weekly, a three-panel cartoon on police corruption, appeared in March 1859.  That fall, New York Illustrated News bought his sketches of tenement-house poverty and John Brown’s funeral, and sent him in early 1860 to England to cover the prizefight between Heenan and Thomas Sayers.  Those illustrations displayed what became a Nast trademark of depicting recognizable faces in a crowd.  While in Europe, he took the opportunity to travel with the army of Giuseppe Garibaldi, leader of the Italian unification movement, providing the New York Illustrated News and the London Illustrated News with illustrations of the war.

Nast returned to the United States in February 1861, and within days was sketching President-elect Abraham Lincoln’s visit to New York City.  That fall, Nast married Sarah Edwards, a cousin of biographer James Parton; the couple had five children.  Since Nast apparently was afflicted with dyslexia, his wife often helped him write captions for his work.  In 1862, Harper’s Weekly hired Nast to provide realistic battlefield sketches (like his work on the Italian war), but he soon proved more adept at political cartoons, which inspired Union patriotism and denigrated the Confederate cause.  General Ulysses S. Grant later recalled that Nast “did as much as any man to preserve the Union and bring the war to an end.”  Although Grant may have exaggerated, the cartoonist’s work was very effective as both Union and Republican Party propaganda during the Civil War.

Following the Civil War, Nast used his pen to caricature President Andrew Johnson as “ King Andy” and condemn the Democratic president’s lenient Reconstruction policy in his cartoons for Harper’s Weekly and his illustrations for the satiric novels of David Ross Locke writing as Petroleum V. Nasby.  Nast’s cartoons vividly portrayed the violence against black Americans and, later, Chinese Americans, as well as urged respect for their civil rights.  In 1868 and 1872, the cartoonist placed his considerable influence behind the presidential campaigns of his war hero, U.S. Grant, depicting the Republican nominee’s 1868 opponent, Horatio Seymour, as a pro-Confederate “Copperhead” and his 1872 rival, Horace Greeley, as a befuddled hypocrite.  During this period, Nast also contributed illustrations to several books, including Mary Dodge’s Hans Brinker (1866), an 1868 edition of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, an 1869 version of Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas, and Charles Henry Pullen’s Miss Columbia’s Private School (1871).

With all Nast’s contributions to American political caricature, it is his anti-Tweed Ring cartoons for which he is most remembered.  Tammany Hall, the main Democratic political machine in New York City, became a target of Nast’s cartoons in 1866, with the first caricature of Boss Tweed appearing in 1869.  In July 1871, The New York Times broke a news story alleging massive corruption by members of the “Tweed Ring” in the form of inflated payments to contractors, kickbacks to government officials, and other malfeasance.  The estimated total stolen from the public treasury was set at $6 million, but is today thought to have been between $30 and $200 million.  The Times’ exposé gave Nast additional ammunition to support his relentless campaign against the Tweed Ring in his Harper’s Weekly cartoons.  Portraying Tweed and his associates as vultures and thieves, Nast’s cartoons were instrumental in arousing public sentiment against the Tweed Ring.  Tammany Hall candidates (except Tweed) lost in the election of November 1871, and within a few months, Boss Tweed had resigned and the ring was being prosecuted. 

In 1872, Nast employed his talents to ruthlessly attack Horace Greeley, the Democratic presidential nominee who unsuccessfully challenged the reelection bid of the artist's hero, President Ulysses S. Grant. During the rest of the 1870s, Nast used his cartoons to advance the temperance movement, chastise the pope’s declaration of infallibility, and warn that Catholics were trying to destroy the public school system.  He also employed his art to endorse a return to the gold standard—introducing the “rag baby” as a symbol of inflation caused by unbacked paper currency (“greenbacks”); to call for harmonious relations between labor and capital; and to denounce socialism, anarchism, and other forms of political radicalism.  In 1884, Nast and Harper’s Weekly editor George William Curtis broke with the Republican Party after it nominated James G. Blaine for president, and lent their support to Democrat Grover Cleveland.  The “ Mugwump” campaign hurt Nast’s reputation among his Republican base.

Nast increasingly faced competition from other talented cartoonists, such as Joseph Keppler of Puck.  After leaving the staff of Harper’s Weekly in 1886, Nast contributed to various publications (including a few cartoons for Harper’s Weekly in 1895-1896), but failed in an attempt to run his own periodical, Nast’s Weekly (1892-1893).  He concentrated in his later years on historical paintings, such as Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House. 

Nast had lost his savings in 1884 when the financial firm of Grant and Ward went broke as a result of Ferdinand Ward’s fraudulent activities (his partner was former president Grant’s son, Ulysses Jr.).  During the 1890s and early twentieth-century, the cartoonist had difficulty earning a living, so he readily accepted President Theodore Roosevelt’s offer in 1902 of an American consulship in Guayaquil, Ecuador.  Before he left for the assignment, Nast drew a prophetic cartoon in which he confronts “Yellow Jack” (yellow fever).  Less than five months after arriving in Ecuador, he died of the dreaded disease on December 7, 1902.

Robert C. Kennedy

Cartoon of Thomas Nast by de Grimm
June 17, 2024

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