The American caricaturist and painter Thomas Nast (1840-1902) is noted for his political cartoons attacking corruption in New York City government and supporting Radical Reconstruction in the South.
Thomas Nast was born on Sept. 27, 1840, in Ludwig, Bavaria. The family emigrated to the United States in 1846, and Thomas was raised and schooled in New York City. He displayed an early talent for drawing. At the age of 15 he took some drawings to Leslie's Weekly, one of the popular magazines of the day, and was hired as an illustrator. In 1862 he joined Harper's Weekly. Throughout the Civil War he turned out patriotic drawings exhorting Northern readers to help crush the Rebels. Abraham Lincoln called him "our best recruiting sergeant."
By the end of the war Nast and Harper's Weekly had become virtually inseparable, and Nast turned his hand toward attacking President Andrew Johnson's attempts to subvert the Radical Republican Reconstruction program. He hammered away at those who tried to undermine Negro political rights in the South with the same zeal and venom he had used earlier on Rebels.
In attacking Johnson's policies, Nast began to depart from conventional representational illustration by distorting and exaggerating the physical traits of his subjects. Because of the technical skill and the self-righteous fervor he brought to the task, it was often said that the art of political caricature reached a new peak of sophistication and importance in his work.
The heights were probably reached in Nast's unrelenting attack against political corruption in New York City in the early 1870s. Nast's caricatures of William "Boss" Tweed and his henchmen in Tammany Hall (the New York County Democratic political machine) played a major role in defeating the machine and imprisoning Tweed. Nast demonstrated his own incorruptibility by refusing to accept a $200,000 bribe to stop his attacks.
During the political crusades Nast also made what have become his most famous, if not his most important, contributions to American politics: he invented and popularized the Democratic donkey, the Republican elephant, and the Tammany tiger. Nast reached his peak of fame, influence, and wealth in the 1870s. Thereafter he began a long, frustrating decline. Technical changes in magazine reproduction led to the obsolescence of the wood-carved plates at which he excelled. In addition, his continued attempts to reopen the wounds of the Civil War made many people uneasy. Tweed's death in 1878 deprived Nast of another favorite target. Nast tried his hand at attacking various other groups who aroused his ire, such as labor unionists (whom he portrayed as vicious, foreign, bomb-throwing anarchists) and the Catholic Church, but the public failed to respond with the same enthusiasm. His contract with Harper's Weekly terminated in 1884, and his work appeared with decreasing frequency.
In 1902 Nast was rescued from an impecunious end by an admirer, President Theodore Roosevelt, who arranged for his appointment as U.S. consul in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Nast did not really want to go to Guayaquil. However, he was in no position to turn down a steady source of income. He died there of yellow fever on Dec. 7, 1902.
Further Reading on Thomas Nast
The standard work on Nast is Albert Bigelow Paine, Th. Nast: His Period and His Pictures (1904). Although uncritical and dated in its historical interpretations, Paine's work contains a wealth of information on Nast and examples of much of his work. Morton Keller, The Art and Politics of Thomas Nast (1968), is very good and more balanced in interpretation. The short text in John Chalmers Vinson, Thomas Nast: Political Cartoonist (1967), tends toward the same laudatory tone as Paine but contains 120 pages of large reproductions of Nast's work.
Additional Biography Sources
Paine, Albert Bigelow, Thomas Nast, his period and his pictures, New York: Chelsea House, 1980.