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
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.
Thomas Nast Illustration of
Quantrill's Raid on a Western Town
The drawing above, created
in 1862, is an excellent example of Nast's early Civil War work. The
drawing shows a scene of a Rebel raid on a Western town. The
Southerners are portrayed as a barbarous group. The image shows the
Confederate National Flag flying over the pillaging of a town. A white man
is being lynched from the very flag pole flying the Confederate Flag. Drunk
men are abusing the local women. Belongings are being pillaged. A black man
is being murdered, a child is being abused, and even a child's dog is being
shot, right in front of him. Illustrations such as this one inflamed
passions in the North, and kept tempers enraged against the south. If there
is any doubt that Nast portrayed the enemy as a cruel and heartless people,
consider this next illustration.
Thomas Nast- Southern Chivalry
This drawing shows Rebel
Soldiers decapitating defenseless Union prisoners. It also shows scenes of
pillaging, murder, and other significant war crimes.
Today, Nast is often
remembered as a "Cartoonist". I feel that this designation is unfortunate,
as it overlooks his significant talent as an artist. His Civil War artwork
should not be considered "cartoons", but meaningful artwork. The drawing
below shows Nast's talent as an artist.
Trapping Rebel Guerrillas in
the West - Thomas Nast
This illustration shows two Union sharpshooters poised in a tree above
the camp of unsuspecting Rebels.
As the Civil War dragged on, public support for the war diminished. The
war was viewed as a "cragmire", and Lincoln was viewed as being aloof and
incompetent. By September 1864, even Lincoln himself was doubtful that he
would be reelected. The Democrats were running General George McClellan
against Lincoln. They were running on a platform of Compromise with the
South. The platform basically said that it was time to get out of the war,
and the path to end the war was to compromise with the south. The key
element that the Democrats wanted was to end the war, and preserve the union
(hopefully). They were willing to give in on the issue of slavery, and let
the south continue to hold slaves, if they would end the war. At this point
everyone in the North had either lost a loved one in the war, or knew
someone who lost a loved one in the war. There appeared to be no end in
site, and the proposition of a quick end to the war, through compromise, was
extremely appealing. It was at this critical point that Nast created the
Thomas Nast: Compromise with
This drawing inflamed passions in the North. The picture is titled,
"Compromise with the South", which was the democratic campaign platform for
the 1864 election. The illustration showed what the slogan really meant. The
picture shows a defeated, injured union soldier bowing down, and shaking
hands with a victorious rebel soldier. The rebel is standing with his boot
on the grave of a fallen union soldier. The tombstone reads, "In Memory of
Union Heroes Who Died in a Useless War". Lady Liberty is seen kneeling at
the grave, and crying. Two months later, Lincoln defeats McClellan, and is
elected to a second term as President of the United States. Many feel that
this illustration helped propel Lincoln to victory in the 1864 presidential
As the North finally began to achieve military success in the War, and as
it began to look like victory could be achieved, Nast released this rousing
Thomas Nast: On to Richmond
This is an inspirational
drawing, showing determined Union soldiers on their path to capturing
Richmond. As the soldiers push onward, some are seen falling, yet still
waiving their comrades onward to victory. This picture sent a clear message
that the end was in sight, and victory could be achieved.
Nast's Civil War artwork was
clearly supportive of Lincoln, supportive of the war effort, and supportive
of the preservation of the Union. These were, in effect, the easy causes for
Nast to get behind. A more difficult issue was the issue of slavery. While
slavery was practiced in the South, many people either directly or
indirectly benefited from it in the North. Slavery enabled cheap cotton, and
hence textiles. It also enabled cheap tobacco and agricultural products.
Many in the North were willing to look the other way, and ignore the cruelty
of the institution of slavery. This attitude was helped by the fact that at
the time, slaves were always discussed in the context of being property, not
people. While it is true that there was a vibrant abolitionist movement
underway in the North, the movement had such radical elements that for the
most part it frightened people. So, most people thought of slaves in much
the way they thought of cattle, horses, or other farm commodities. Nast
wanted to change the view towards slaves, without blatantly offending or
frightening people. He did this by creating artwork that helped show slaves
as people, not property, and show the fundamental cruelties associated with
the institution of slavery. A good example of this type of artwork is
Thomas Nast: Emancipation
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 as Normal 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
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.
Ohio State Biography on Nast, www.lib.ohio-state.edu.
Encycl. Brit. 1911
Harper's Weekly, 1861-1872