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Harper's Weekly
Thomas Nast Biography

James Gillray
Exhibit at the
New York
Public Library

The Golden Age
of the English
Engraver

© Great Caricatures
2008

 

 

Thomas Nast.

 

This article was originally published in Harper's Weekly Newspaper, August 26, 1871.

   
 

Thomas Nast
Artist of "Harper's Weekly"
Wood Engraving from a
photograph by Brady
12"h x 9"w

The most cordially hated man in New York at the present day—hated by men whose friendship would be a dishonor—is THOMAS NAST, the most successful, most widely known, and most gifted humorous artist whom the genius of America has produced. Though of foreign birth, he came to this country at so early an age that his mental and moral development belongs wholly to the land of his adoption. A more thorough American does not breathe. The whole range of his art is instinct with the best and highest thought of the New World. No other country could have afforded the same kind of culture which has made him what he is-the foremost caricaturist of the age. He thoroughly appreciates the boundless hospitality which makes every foreigner welcome to our shores, and in recognition of the free boon of citizenship sinks his own nationality in that of his adopted country, and devotes his best talents to her service. He was educated a Catholic, but that has not blinded him to the dangers of political Romanism, especially in a republic like ours, where the maintenance of law, freedom, and order depends upon the intelligence of the people. The Catholic Church, as an ecclesiastical organization, has never been the object of his satire; it is only such members of that communion as seek to pervert its machinery to political purposes whom he castigates.

THOMAS NAST is the son of a musician in the Bavarian army, and was born in Landau, Bavaria, in the year 1840. When he was six years old his parents came to the United States, bringing their boy with them. They were very poor, but their industry presently made them comfortable. The boy showed from the beginning his fondness for drawing; and although his parents were very sure that it was folly to devote himself to any thing but a mechanical trade, he persevered in his artistic studies. Upon leaving school he drew with KAUFMANN for six months, and had no further instruction from a master.

When he was fifteen years old Nast began as a draughtsman for an illustrated paper. He gave himself so ardently to his work. sparing but four hours for sleep. and diligently drawing and studying during the rest of the night, that he found he was injuring his sight and his health. Three years of diligence and success made his name known, and leaving his exclusive work upon the paper, he was so profitably employed that in February, l860, he had money enough for a visit to Europe. He went to England with an engagement to send home pictures of the prize-fight between HEENAN and SAYRES. From England he pushed on to Italy, and reached Genoa in time to join Colonel MEDICI'S expedition to Southern Italy; and crossing to Sicily, went through the island with GARIBALDI, and was afterward at the sieges of Capua and Gaeta. He made sketches of all the memorable events he saw for American, English, and French illustrated papers; and after a rapid tour through Germany, Stwitzerlnnd, and France, the young artist landed again at the end of a year in New York.

His first impulse was to paint pictures suggested by his Italian experience; but the opening of the great campaign between the North and the South drew his heart and mind to another theme; and in the year 1862 he began the remarkable series of illustrations which from that time to the present day have appeared in this paper. Our readers will remember the marked impression they made upon thoughtful minds in every part of the North.

His artistic activity was not confined to newspaper work. In 1865 he painted a characteristic picture, called "The Union Advance arriving at a Plantation," an episode of SHERMAN'S march to the sea. It was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in this city—if hanging a picture over a door where it can not be seen may be called "exhibiting" any thing but the stupidity of the hanging committee. A year or two later he painted "The March of the Seventh Regiment down Broadway," when the first call for volunteers was made after the firing on Fort Sumter. Like the first-mentioned work, it was full of character and movement.

In 1866 Mr. NAST designed a series of grotesques for the Bal d'Opéra—a gallery of semisatirical popular portraits, unique for the purpose, and very successful. Each picture was a palpable hit. But of all Mr. NAST'S works his pictures for this paper are undoubtedly the most characteristic and important. They are of an allegorico-political character, at once pictures, poems, and speeches. They argue the case to the eye, and conclusively. A few lines do the work of many words, and with a force of eloquence which no words can rival. Their effectiveness is unquestioned. It is said that the Boss and Head-Centre of the Tammany Ring himself has declared in his wrath that while he doesn't care a straw for what is written about him, the great majority of his constituency being unable to read, these illustrations, the meaning of which every one can take in a at a glance, play the mischief with his feelings. Mr. NAST'S recent pictures, suggested by the riot of July 12 and the New York Times's exposure of the Ring, are among the most powerful of his efforts. Every stroke of his pencil cuts like a cimeter. His caricatures of TWEED, SWEENY, CONNOLLY, and HALL are admirable in the grotesque fidelity. They never can be lived down; and if future ages know any thing of the worthy quartette just named, it will be owing to their merciless caricaturist. Doubtless they would rather court oblivion than endure this immortality of infamy. They are naturally anxious to avoid such unpleasant notoriety and they also naturally supposed that a very simple means would remedy the difficulty. Believing that "every man has his price." they tried to buy him off. To their astonishment they found theywere dealing with a man who was not for sale! They then tried the efficacy of threats. Letters of the most violent character poured in upon him, some anonymous, others signed with the writer's name, threatening violence and even death unless he should quit caricaturing the Ring, political Romanism, and the worser sort of their supporters.The pages of this paper show, and will continue to show, that threats are quite as impotent as bribes with Mr. NAST. He is not to be bought or frightened. We have already mentioned, in a late number of the Weekly, that he is a member of the Seventh Regiment, and on the day of the late riot shouldered his musket and marched with his comrades in defense of freedom, equality, and order.

Mr. NAST'S position as a political caricaturist is very high. In Mr. JARVES'S "Art Idea"—a work well known to artists and connoisseurs—we find the following estimate of his talents and capacity:
"The lofty character and vast issues of our civil war have thus far had but slight influences on our art. Rarely have our artists sought to give even the realistic scenes of strife. This may be in part owing to their inaptitude in treating the human figure, or the delineation of strong passions and heroic action.

"Judging from wood-cuts in Harper's Weekly of compositions relating to the various stages of the war, NAST is an artist of uncommon abilities. He has composed designs, or rather given hints of his ability to do so, of allegorical, symbolical, or illustrative character far more worthy to be transferred in paint to the wall spaces of our public buildings than any thing that has as yet been placed upon them. Although hastily got up for a temporary purpose, they evince originality of conception, freedom of manner, lofty appreciation of national ideas and action, and a large artistic instinct.

Although his strength lies in political caricature, Mr. NAST can do excellent work in other departments of art. His socity cartoons—vide "Too Much of a Good Thing" in the Supplement to the last number of the Weekly—are full of fanncy and humor. There is infinite variety in what he does. His inventive powers seem to be inexhaustible. At the same time he knows the value of iteration in art—as witness the portraits that run through the entire series of his pictures on the Ring. Each one is so marked that if you catch only the glimpse of an eyeglass, the tip of a nose, or a straggly bit of hair, you know it stands for HALL or TWEED or SWEENEY or CONNOLLY.

The portrait of Mr. NAST given with this article was engraved from an excellent photograph by BRADY. We present it to our readers as the likeness of a man who is most agreeably known to them by his works, and who, we trust, may long he spared to take his part in the good fight against every species of meanness and wrong.

   
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