The Cartoonists by Susanna McLeod


Thomas Nast, Superb Civil War Caricaturist and Cartoonist

February 28, 2013


His pen as piercing as a knife, Thomas Nast made short work of those he thought were doing wrong. Gaining fame as an exquisite cartoonist, Nast used his power and popularity to change his corner of the world. His work altered popular culture, too. Let the traditional image of Santa Claus, and the political symbols of Donkey and Elephant materialize in your mind. Then thank the tremedous imagination and art of Thomas Nast


Political turmoil and massive crop failures in Europe in the 1840s caused a wave of immigration to North America. With his mother and sister, six-year-old Thomas Nast left their home in Germany and sailed for New York City in 1846. His father, the senior Thomas Nast, "was a trombonist in a regimental band... and he joined [his family] in 1849 when his enlistment was up," said Thomas Nast Biography on Ohio State University's "Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum."

A whiz with a pencilt, the fourteen-year-old Nast studied art with Theodore Kaufman. A year later, the teenager worked at the Thomas Jefferson Bryant Gallery in 1855, honing his uncommon abilities. Jobs as a reportorial artist with "Frank Leslie's Illustrated News" and "New York Illustrated News" came Nast's way, illustrating the news rather than writing about the topics. Nast travelled overseas to report on events, including a celebrated boxing match in 1860. His works were filled with movement, drama and emotion.


Caricaturist Thomas Nast  
Caricaturist and Cartoonist Thomas Nast  

Santa Claus by Thomas Nast

In 1862, Thomas Nast took a job with the popular "Harper's Weekly" magazine. The brilliant artist thrived in the prestigious post, "beginning a career that lasted a quarter-century and made him both famous and, a least for a time, wealthy," said Jonathan Yardley in a Washington Post article on February 15, 2013. Intricate sketches, piercing caricatures and delightful cartoons captured the imagination of his readers and fans. A century later, "Nast remains a visible and influential presence.

Nast created his touching version of St. Nicholas in 1863 and debuted "Santa Claus in Camp in "Harper's" January 3rd issue. The bearded older man with rosy cheeks, smouldering pipe and big round belly became a classic; Nast's Christmas image of Santa Claus with smiling eyes is recognized around the world. (The image looks surprisingly similar to Nast himself in his later years.) Evolving over 30 years, Nast gave Santa a velvety red suit. Nast's image was the inspiration for the Coca Cola company's modern Santa Claus.

The next year, the illustrator took on issues in the roiling political arena. Again in "Harper's Weekly," Nast "published 'Compromise with the South,' a cartoon influential in President Lincoln's reelection campaign," said Thomas Nast Timeline. The illustration portrayed Lincoln weeping at the grave of Union soldiers and shaking hands with a wounded amputee. Reader reaction was swift and Nast gained immediate recognition.

Thomas Nast's Original St. Nicholas - Santa Claus

By the late 1860s, Nast was renowned for his expressive work and for holding a drawing pencil that held immense power. Through his art, the cartoonist championed the Union cause over the Confederate side, and believed with all his heart in the American dream, justice and rights.

Taking on other projects, Nast illustrated books - about 110 of them over his life. His wartime "drawings were transformed by engravers into wood engravings that were often printed as double-page spreads about twenty inches wide," noted OSU. Nast created a number of the wood engravings himself, drawing backwards directly on the wood plate. Created with a soft pencil, "his heavy use of cross-hatching provided tonality for the black and white drawings."

Political Cartoon by Thomas Nast

One fascinating and innovative project by Nast did not achieve the desired acclaim. Calling the program "Grand Caricaturama" Nast painted scenes on panels 8 feet by 12 feet featuring the nation's history. The panels were carried across the stage accompanied by music and narration. The roadshow was critically enjoyed but not profitable.

Continuing to wield his pencil and enormous talent, the cartoonist tackled what he saw as injustices in his adopted country. Nast began a campaign against New York City administrators in the 1870s. The men in his "pensights" were led by William Magear Tweed in a political organization called Tammany Hall. Exposed in Nast's cartoons as "sleazy criminals," Tweed and his crew were kicked out in the next election, perhaps due to fans eagerly following the cartoonist's opinions. Tweed was claimed to have said "I don't care what the papers write about me. My constitutents can't read. But, damn it, they can see the pictures."

Politics still on his mind, Nast created the iconic symbols of the two main political parties in the United States. An elephant represented the Republican Party and a Donkey became the emblem of the Democratic Party. Still used today, the symbols speak immediately to the political polarization.

Political Cartoon by Thomas Nast, featuring the Elephant of the Republican Party.    

By 1880, time and progress advanced the procedures for printing cartoons. Nast was required to alter his own methods. Trading his pencil for a pen, the artist also traded the wood plates for paper. The different toolsl changed his works, "the result was a harder, sparser line to his drawings, unsparing of deficiences of technique that had been obsured by the softer medium of block engraving," stated OSU. As well, the spirit of his dawings changed, suggesting a waning of his earlier enthusiasm and fiery spirit.

Nast left his comfortable job at "Harper's Weekly" in 1886 and did freelance magazine work for a time. His wealth waning and seeming to lose touch with the times, he tried to establish his own publication in 1892. "Nast's Weekly" lasted only a few months. Historical paintings that he loved to create did not bring in sufficient income. The cartoonist took a new tack. Accepting the post of Consul General in Ecuador, offered by US President Theodore Roosevelt, Nast moved to South America. Developing yellow fever in the tropical country, Thomas Nast succumbed to the viral infection acquired through mosquito bites on December 7, 1902 at age 62.

Married to Sallie (officially Sarah) Edwards in 1861, Thomas Nast was the father of three daughters and two sons. Nast left behind a lpriceless contribution of profound statements in the form of exacting and complicated illustrations. His work will forever be recognized in the twinkling eyes and smile of Old St. Nick and by the iconic emblems at every American political event..

Now that's an unforgettable legacy. Thank you, Thomas Nast.

© Susanna McLeod 2013