Born in Germany on September 27, 1840, Thomas Nast moved to New York with his family as a young boy. While Nast did not excel in his studies, he did show a great deal of aptitude for drawing at an early age. By the time he was 12, Nast was enrolled as a student at the National Academy of Design, where he began to develop his unique style of illustration.
Although it required some diligence on his part, Nast was eventually hired by Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in 1855. Due to financial difficulties at the paper, Nast moved on to Harper’s Weekly several years later. It was through his work with this publication that Nast’s illustrations not only became easily recognizable, but also very controversial.
On May 22, 1856, Charles Sumner, an abolitionist who’d presented a powerful speech against slavery, was brutally caned in the Senate chamber by Preston Brooks, a Representative from South Carolina. Sumner sustained severe head trauma, a spinal cord injury and post-traumatic stress disorder; living with pain and discomfort until he passed away in 1874. In the following illustration, Nast imagines Sumner visiting the site of Brooks’ grave, who in a strange twist of fate, died from croup less than a year after attacking Sumner.
Thomas Nast was opposed to segregation and acted as an advocate for the abolition of slavery. He supported both Native Americans’ and Chinese Americans’ rights. Despite championing these causes, Nast was not without his own bias, especially when it came to the Catholic Church and New York’s Irish immigrant population. He once notoriously represented Catholic bishops as crocodiles stalking children while regularly depicting the Irish as apelike in an ongoing campaign against both.
In government, Nast was disgusted by the corruption he witnessed and used his artwork as a platform by which to express his opinions and shed light on crucial topics, such as the Tweed Ring. William M. Tweed was the third largest land owner in New York City, co-director of the Erie Railroad and 10th National Bank, as well as the “Boss” of Tammany Hall, the Democratic Party political machine. He also served in the House of Representatives and New York State Senate. In 1877, “Boss Tweed” was convicted of stealing somewhere between $25 million and $200 million (estimates vary) from New York City tax payers through corrupt political practices. He was unable to make bail and was sent to prison. During a home visit, Tweed escaped and fled to Spain. At the border, people recognized his face from the many depictions in Nast’s cartoons, and turned him over to authorities. In this illustration from 1873, after Tweed’s first trial, Lady Justice takes matters into her own hands and locks Tweed in prison.
Nast was responsible for the first depictions of the donkey and elephant being used as symbols of our Democratic and Republican political parties. They were introduced in 1870 and 1874, respectively. Two early examples can be seen here in cartoons from Harper’s Weekly.
Not all of his work was political or satirical in nature. Inspired by Clement Moore’s poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, Nast created the visual image of Santa Claus we are familiar with today. Adding a rounder figure to jolly St. Nick’s body, the artist also provided a geographic location of the North Pole as Santa’s home and a contingent of elves to help with all of Santa’s duties in the workshop. Although the concepts were not his, Nast did lend visuals to popularize the tradition of hanging stockings by the fire as well as the notion of flying reindeer.
In his later years, after leaving Harper’s Weekly, Nast suffered financially and did not maintain steady employment. He took on commissions for book illustrations and oil paintings in order to stay afloat. Thomas Nast passed away on December 7, 1902, after a battle with Yellow Fever, and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
This post was written by Tammy Kiter, Manuscript Reference Librarian.