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Thomas Nast (American, 1840-1902)


Birth Place: Landau (Niederbayern, Bavaria, Germany)

Thomas Nast was an American artist known for his weekly political cartoons attacking New York's Tammany Hall, slavery during the Civil War, and Reconstruction politics. His sketches helped popularize the images of a rotund, jolly Santa Claus, as well as the donkey now associated with the Democratic Party.

Born September 27, 1840 in Baden, Germany, Nast arrived as an immigrant in New York at the age of six. Though Nast never excelled at academics, his talent at art became apparent from an early age. He pursued artistic study at the National Academy of Design, becoming a draftsman for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper at the age of 15. When he was 18, Nast joined Harper's Weekly.

Nast was a staunch supporter of the Union during the American Civil War. His drawing board at Harper's Weekly allowed him a platform to denounce slavery. President Abraham Lincoln named him the Union's “best recruiting sergeant” due to the popularity and broad reach of Nast's cartoons. “After the Battle”(1862) decried Northerners who chose not to oppose the war; “Emancipation” (1863) exposed the horrors of slavery and the immediate need for its abolition.

Nast's cartoons continued their political attacks during Reconstruction. Southerners were portrayed as vile and exploitative oppressors of powerless blacks, and President Andrew Johnson was shown as an autocratic demagogue.

The work of Thomas Nast had a profound impact on the political machines of the 1870s. “Boss” Tweed, the leader of the New York Tammany Hall machine, was a chief target. The 1871 cartoons “Tammany Tiger Loose” and “Group of Vultures Waiting for the Storm to Blow Over” were a profound impetus on the machine's downfall. “Boss” Tweed fled the country, and his subsequent identification and arrest in 1876 are attributed to Nast's caricatures.

Nast's final cartoon in Harper's appeared in 1886. He left the company due to fundamental disagreements with its editors. Although Nast did find work with other journals, his artistic contributions became ever more infrequent. Nast had earlier lost most of his savings when the brokerage house of Grant and Ward failed, and thereafter became destitute. In 1902, Nast was appointed general counsel to Ecuador. He contracted yellow fever while in Ecuador, and died on December 7, 1902.

While Nast's work can also be found in oil and book illustrations, he is best known for his incisive political cartoons and merciless caricatures. In addition to the Democratic donkey and Santa Claus, Nast popularized the image of Tammany Hall's tiger and the Republican Party's elephant. Nast's insightful work changed the landscape of art and of American history.

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