Thomas Nast: Father of the American political cartoon

photo of Thomas Nast
cover Harper's Weekly showing Republican elephant Drawing of Boss Tweed Santa Claus drawing Santa Claus

Thomas Nast was one of the best known illustrators and cartoonists of the second half of the nineteenth century. He came to define the art of illustrating American political ideas and conflicts.

Nast was born in Germany in 1840 and came to the United States in 1846. A naturally gifted artist, Nast had only a year or two of formal art instruction when at 15 he apprenticed as a draftsman for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and in 1862 he became a full time illustrator for Harper's Weekly where he had his greatest influence and success.

Nast came of age at a time when printing technology was changing and newspapers and magazines became capable of cheaply reproducing hand drawn illustrations. Illustrators would paint or draw on blocks of wood that then would be carved by engravers into printing blocks.

Thomas Nast's drawings chronicled the Civil War, elections, politics and political corruption. He is credited with creating the elephant as the symbol of the Republican Party and popularizing the Democratic Party donkey. His most famous political cartoons were of the corrupt William "Boss" Tweed commissioner of public works in New York City and were instrumental in turning public opinion against Boss Tweed and sending him to prison.

But it is at this time of the year we come face to face with his most enduring image - Santa Claus. Nast has been credited with creating the modern American version of Santa Claus as a fat, jolly, white bearded guy in a fur trimmed red suit. Undoubtedly influenced by Clement Moore's 1823 poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" ("The Night Before Christmas"), Nast added his own spin on the Santa lore. He was the first to establish Santa's home as the North Pole and gave Santa a toy workshop with tiny elves. Nast produced dozens of Christmas engravings for Harper's between 1863 and 1886. In 1890 Nast published a collection of his Christmas drawings - Thomas Nast's Christmas Drawings for the Human Race.

Nast left Harper's Weekly in 1886 citing artistic and editorial differences with the new publisher. He lost most of the considerable money he made at Harper's in bad investments and could not find enough work as a freelance illustrator. In 1901 long time admirer President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Nast to serve as consul general to Ecuador where in 1902 he contracted yellow fever and died.

Comments

Another informative, entertaining, "who knew?" blog, Mary! DPL's magazine collection is really a treasure trove.

Great blog Mary! Really informative.

Western History and Genealogy also has a small bit of correspondence between Denver's poet Eugene Field and Nast. http://eadsrv.denverlibrary.org/sdx/pl/search-s.xsp?q=Thomas+Nast&base=fa&base=fa

Great blog, Mary--who knew Nast was responsible for the donkey & the elephant and jolly old St. Nick coming from the North Pole! Too bad he came to such a sad end.

DPL has such amazing treasures, including Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and Harper's Weekly--great to showcase them, especially this time of year! Happy Holidays

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