It was novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton who first said, “The Pen is Mightier than the Sword”, but it was artist Thomas Nast who demonstrated the profound truth of the adage. While Thomas Nast is almost forgotten today, there is perhaps no person of the latter half of the 1800’s who had a larger impact on defining American culture, and influencing American history. He was responsible for creating the popular American icons of the Republican Elephant, the Democratic Donkey, Uncle Sam, Santa Claus, and Columbia. His artwork played an instrumental role in securing Abraham Lincoln’s second election to the presidency, in the election of Ulysses S. Grant, and in the downfall of the corrupt political machine of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall.
Considering these impressive accomplishments, a more detailed examination of the life and work of Thomas Nast is warranted.Early Life and Work:
Nast was born on September 27, 1840 in Germany. He relocated to New York City in 1846. He studied art in New York. He began work as an artist for Leslie’s illustrated in 1855, and for Harper’s Weekly in 1859. At this time, pictures were printed in newspapers through woodblock printing. A picture had to, in effect, be “carved” onto a block of wood, and then the wood block was used as a “stamp” to print the picture onto a page. In order to create these woodblock prints, photographs or other images had to first be converted into line art. Newspapers like Leslie’s and Harper’s had to hire artists to convert photographs into line art. The artists would look at a photograph, and then create a drawing of the photograph as accurately as possible. In this role, the artist was simply trying to duplicate the original photograph or artwork. It is likely that much of Nast’s early work for Leslie’s or Harper’s would have been in this vein, and likely these drawings would not be attributed to him by the newspapers.Emergence as an Artist and Political Commentator:
Nast began to emerge as an artist, satirist, and political commentator (through his artwork), in 1862. His art was not only stunning in its visual impact; it was profound in its political message. The result of this unique combination of properties resulted in his artwork having an incredible ability to direct or steer public opinion. His work touched people, and impacted how they thought about a particular topic. During the Civil War years his work was staunchly pro Lincoln, pro Union, and anti Slavery. His artwork portrayed Southerners as the enemy . . . not just the enemy, but a cruel and barbarous people.
His artwork was revolutionary in that it portrayed Slaves as People, not as Property. The artwork of Nast helped accomplish what the more radical abolitionist movement had not been able to do; it helped the general population see and appreciate the basic humanity of the slave population. The illustration above is an excellent example of how Nast used his artwork to help redefine the way people looked at slaves and slavery. The center of the illustration shows a revolutionary picture of the possibilities of the future, while the insets surrounding the central image show the cruel realities of the past. The center illustration is revolutionary in that it shows a black family in what would be a typical scene of a white family of the day. They are living in a nice home, with nice furniture, and nice clothes. The father is bouncing his little child on his leg. The family is doing all the normal things a white family of the day would have been doing. This would have been somewhat shocking when this illustration was made . . . it is portraying Black People asNormal People, not as property. While the central image helps people see Slaves as People, the surrounding images capture the brutality of the institution of slavery. It shows black women being tied up and beaten, it shows black men being tortured, and is shows escaped slaves being hunted down like dogs. A particularly poignant image shows a family being auctioned off at a slave auction. The upper part of the illustration shows spiritual beings . . . some from the pit of hell, and some looking as if they are heavenly creatures. This part of the drawing clearly portrays Nast's view that the issue was a spiritual conflict . . . a conflict of good vs. evil, with the battle extending all the way to the spiritual realm.Post War Years:
Nast became very famous due to the popularity of his Civil War artwork, some of which we have presented above. He became a sought after book illustrator, and speaker. He is said to have illustrated over 100 books.
Nast was always one to take on a cause when he felt that there was an issue of right vs. wrong. In 1868 he became involved in an effort to oust the corrupt New York City government of Tammany Hall led by Democratic politician "Boss" Tweed.
Nast's drawings depicted Boss Tweed as a corrupt politician. Nast's attacks were so relentless that at one point Tweed dispatched his cronies with instructions to, "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." It was also reported that Tweed offered Nast bribes to "take an extended European vacation" in order to try and get the pictures to stop.
Tweed and his corrupt counterparts were ousted from office in November of 1871. An irony of history is that when Tweed escaped from jail and fled to Spain in 1876, he was recognized and arrested by a customs official who did not read English but had seen Nast's Harper's Weekly caricatures of Tweed.
In 1872, Nast turned his pen against Horace Greely. During the Civil War, Greeley had been one of the Nation's most vocal critics of Lincoln, and opponent of the war. Nast's drawings this time helped U.S. Grant's presidential campaign.
In 1877 Nast's influence would rapidly decline. He had been given almost free reign on the pages of Harper's Weekly from 1862 to 1877. In 1877 Fletcher Harper, the magazine's publisher died. Joseph Harper became the publisher, and wanted to make the publication less political and of greater general appeal. As such, they began to reign in Nast. He eventually quit over issues of artistic integrity.
Nast then began work as a freelance illustrator, and even tried his hand at publishing a magazine. These efforts met with limited success. In 1902 he accepted Theodore Roosevelt's appointment to serve as consul general to Ecuador. After six months he contracted yellow fever and died on December 7, 1902.
After his death Harper's Weekly wrote that he belonged ". . . so much to the past that the impression has naturally spread that he was an old man." Nast was, in fact, only sixty-two when he died, a giant in the history of American Art who found himself out of step with changing times.Legacy Nast's Santa Claus on the cover of the January 3, 1863, issue of Harper's Weekly
Nast's depiction of iconic characters, such as Santa Claus and Uncle Sam, are widely credited with giving us the recognized versions we see today.
- Republican Party elephant
- Democratic Party donkey (although the donkey was associated with the Democrats as early as 1837, Nast popularized the representation)
- Tammany Hall tiger, a symbol of Boss Tweed's political machine
- Columbia, a graceful image of the Americas as a woman, usually in flowing gown and tiara, carrying a sword to defend the downtrodden.
- Uncle Sam, a lanky avuncular personification of the United States (first drawn in the 1830s; Nast and John Tenniel added the goatee).
- John Confucius, a variation of John Chinaman, a traditional caricature of a Chinese Immigrant.
- The Fight at Dame Europa's School, 1871
- Peace In Union, a 9'x12' oil depicting the surrender of General Robert E. Lee to General U.S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in April 1865. The painting was a commission from Herman Kohlsaat in 1894. Upon its completion in 1895 it was presented as a gift to the citizens of Galena, Illinois.