Biography: A founding figure of American political cartooning, Thomas Nast created several enduring images such as the Democratic donkey, the Republican elephant, and Uncle Sam. He was best known for his campaign against the corrupt Tammany Hall political system of New York City.
Nast is considered a foundational artist for American caricature and cartoons. He was born in Germany in 1840 and arrived with his family in New York City in 1846. A boy who loved to draw, and only draw, he dropped out of school at 13, and studied at the National Academy of Design until his family could no longer afford the tuition. In 1854, he studied art privately with Theodore Kaufman (1814-1896) and then served as a copyist at the Thomas Jefferson Bryant Gallery of Christian Art in New York City. He went to work for Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in 1845. Five year later, he moved to the New York Illustrated News, where he received assignments for England and Italy. He returned to the US in 1861 and married Sarah Edwards. They had 5 children.
In 1862, Nast joined Harper’s Weekly where he stayed for 25 years. He was assigned as an artist correspondent during the Civil War and sent back sketches from the field that won him immediate acclaim when published. An ardent abolitionist, he depicted southerners as evil and barbarous; his imagery and biting captions helped counter defeatism among Union supporters. Abraham Lincoln is said to have called him "the Union’s best recruiting sergeant.” While at Harper's, Nast created the images of the Democratic Party as a donkey and the Republican as an elephant; and the image of Santa Claus that has endured – the rotund man in a red suit. Nast added the fillip that he lived at the North Pole and could be addressed there.
By the end of the Civil War, Nast had also gained fame as a book illustrator; he would illustrate over 100 books in his career. He undertook illustrations for Harper's Bazar and caricatures for comic papers. In 1868, he created The Grand Caricaturama - 33 paintings, each 8 by 12 feet that comprised an allegory of the nation's recent history. The pictures were rolled across a stage, accompanied by piano music and a satirical narrative presented by an actor.
Beginning in 1867, Nast concentrated on political cartoons. He was most famous for his campaign against Boss Tweed and the Tammany Hall organization, ultimately helping to drive them out of office. It was reported that Tweed offered Nast (who was making $5,000 a year at the time) $500,000 to get out of town – Nast didn’t, and ultimately Tweed had to flee to avoid prosecution.
In 1872 Nast took aim at Horace Greeley, who ran for the new Liberal Republican Party against the incumbent (and re-elected) Republican Ulysses S. Grant. The next year, he toured the nation billed as "The Prince of Caricaturists" and the "Destroyer of Tammany Hall." Nast had personal prejudices that motivated some of his most caustic works, including contempt for the Roman Catholic Church and Irish immigrants. Despite his earlier defense of African Americans, in the 1870s many of his images of Black people reflected post-Reconstructionist attitudes and were overtly racist.
Eventually Nast's position at Harper's Weekly was undermined by the paper's trend away from politics. The humor magazine Puck - with its color cartoons - presented increasing competition. Changing editorial positions were not in line with Nast's own, and he refused to draw cartoons he did not believe in. Photomechanical reproduction also played a role in Nast's diminishing influence: around 1880 he began to draw with pen on paper, not the pencil on wood block of his early years. The result was not as visually powerful.
Nast left Harper's Weekly in late 1886 and became a free-lance illustrator for various magazines. In 1892, he founded Nast's Weekly, which was not a success. He returned to his early experience and tried historical painting. These failures, combined with bad investments, reduced him to near-poverty until President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him American consul for Ecuador in 1902. But when he arrived, Ecuador was suffering from a yellow fever epidemic, which Nast contracted> He died in December of 1902.