Thomas Nast: Cartoons, Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Matthew Hill
Thomas Nast was a popular German-American artist, cartoonist, book illustrator, and caricaturist. He is known as the 'Father of the American Political Cartoon.'

Beginnings of an Artist

Thomas Nast was born in 1840, in Landau, Germany. His father played the trombone in a regimental band. Frustrated with politics in Germany, he sent his wife and kids to New York City in 1846, and reunited with them in 1850. The young Nast proved a poor student, but a talented artist. He studied under Theodore Kaufmann, another German immigrant, who specialized in historical art. He began working at the Thomas Jefferson Bryant Gallery of Christian Art, and landed his first cartoonist jobs with Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. He also worked for New York's Illustrated News. He made quite an impression, and was dispatched to England and then Sicily for news stories. He returned to the United States in 1861 on the eve of the Civil War, and soon married. He and his wife Sarah had five children.

Self Portrait of Thomas Nast
Thomas Nast Image

Harper's Weekly

In 1862, Nast took a job as illustrator with Harper's Weekly, a political magazine with which he is best associated, and it was his primary job until he left in 1886. Nast made a name for himself sketching battlefield scenes and personalities of the war. He drew on the battlefield and handed these over to his magazine, which turned them into wood engravings. These were then printed as twenty-inch illustrations, filling up two pages. His illustrations were large and visually appealing. President Lincoln was so impressed that he called Nast his 'best recruiting sergeant', since his cartoons inspired draftees.

Thomas Nast Civil War Image
Thomas Nast Civil War Cartoon

Politics and Santa Claus

One of his most popular illustrations was titled 'Compromise with the South', which depicted Columbia - sort of a female version of Uncle Sam - weeping over the grave of Union soldiers while a surviving Union and Confederate soldier shake hands. Some claim that this launched Nast into instant celebrity status. His social circle increased, as Nast and his wife Sarah were close friends with Julia and Ulysses S. Grant, and frequently visited them in the White House. Nast is also credited with standardizing the Democratic Party symbol of the donkey and the Republican Party symbol of the elephant. Although the idea of the donkey originated in the administration of Andrew Jackson, its artistic images were largely the work of Nast. Politically, Nash ran in abolitionist circles, supported the Radical Republicans, and portrayed African-Americans sympathetically in his illustrations, which was rare at the time. In addition to political and social themes, Nast had a playful side; he is widely credited with creating the modern image of Santa Claus! That's not a bad resume!

Thomas Nast Santa Claus
Thomas Nast and Santa Claus

Nash and 'Boss' Tweed

Following the war, Nast grew interested in illustrating political corruption. William 'Boss' Tweed, the notorious leader of the Tammany Hall Democrats in New York, became a special target of his. Tweed was knee-deep in corruption and Nast made a special point to caricature him in the worst possible light. Tweed grew so disgusted that he once quipped about Nast: 'Let's stop those damned pictures. I don't care so much what the papers write about me. My constituents can't read. But damn it, they can see pictures.' Tweed had a point. In fact, when he was later arrested and sent to prison, he escaped and fled to Spain, where he was subsequently identified based on Nast's cartoons!

Political Cartoon of Boss Tweed
Political Cartoon of Boss Tweed

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