Thomas Nast Drew The Iconic St. Nick And Created Political Cartoons

A pen notebook and calculator laying on top of sheets of paper Credit: Shutterstock photo

Thomas Nast struggled in school and spent most of his time drawing on his desk. At home, he covered the walls with his pictures.

Drawing permeated every aspect of Nast's life. As a child, he chased fire trucks racing to emergencies to sketch burning buildings. He drew New York's colorful street life and copied paintings at museums.

"As a political cartoonist, Nast wielded more influence than any other artist of the 19th century," wrote Albert Boime in "Thomas Nast and French Art" in "The American Art Journal." "He not only enthralled a vast audience with boldness and wit, but swayed it time and again to his personal position on the strength of his visual imagination. … His impact on American public life was formidable enough to profoundly affect the outcome of every presidential election during the period (of) 1864 to 1884."

Nast (1840-1902) was born in Landau in the Kingdom of Bavaria, where his father, Joseph, was a trombonist in a regimental band. One of the boy's fondest memories was of a bearded man dressed as St. Nicholas going door to door at Christmas distributing treats. But this seemingly idyllic childhood ended in 1846, as his father was warned to leave the country because of his controversial political views, two years before a Europe-wide revolution broke out between the aristocracy and reformers. He joined the French navy, while Thomas' mother, Appolonia, took the six-year-old and his sister, Andie, on a ship to New York City.

They ended up on the Lower East Side, where the boy attended German-speaking schools but showed no interest in anything but art. The colorful and sometimes dangerous mixture of immigrants gave Thomas plenty of subjects to sketch. His father rejoined the family four years later. Nast's parents decided to send their budding 14-year-old artist to study with Theodore Kaufmann, a local German-American painter. Restless, Nast left six months later to study at the National Academy of Design, while earning money helping out at a museum.

Hustling To The Top

At 15, he pitched Frank Leslie, publisher of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, for a job. The publication combined news, sensational stories and portraits of local personalities, so it needed lots of artists to depict what was being reported. Artists had to draw quickly, then engravers turned the pictures into wood blocks for the press. Leslie glanced at Nast's portfolio and didn't think the kid was up to the work, but gave him a tough trial assignment to draw a busy ferry in the morning. Nast returned with a picture bursting with energy and detail. Leslie was astonished and hired him. Nast spent the next three decades driving much of the national conversation with his pictorial social commentary.

"Thomas Nast built a life essentially from nothing, lacking education, connections or financial support," Fiona Deans Halloran, author of " Thomas Nast: The Father of Modern Political Cartoons ," told IBD. "He translated his curiosity and bonhomie into a career. He was the sort of person who could talk to nearly anyone, as he worked with artists, publishers, politicians and activists. He was deeply interested in human society, loved stories and poetry, Shakespeare, children and politics. All of this lodged in his mind and informed his work, making him a model of how to turn a passionate character into a professional position."

Nast worked hard to improve both his artistic and commentary skills, and the newsroom was a crash course in social and political issues. In 1859, his work appeared for the first time in another popular paper, Harper's Weekly, in a piece exposing police corruption. The following year, he went to England to cover a major boxing match for New York Illustrated News. A few months later, he filed pictorial reports on Giuseppe Garibaldi's military campaign to unify Italy.

After his return to New York in February 1861, he married Sarah Edwards. The Civil War broke out that year and he was sent to the front. The anti-draft riots in July 1863 made him the leading political cartoonist for the Union cause. The abolition of slavery had by that time become a war goal, but many in the North were not willing to risk their lives for it, and in July 1863, riots broke out against the draft in New York. Nast covered the uprising and became a passionate supporter of freeing the slaves. With more than 100,000 readers, his Harper's cartoons rallied the public to the war effort, which resulted in loads of hate mail from the South.

His "Compromise with the South" on Sept. 4, 1864, depicted a vote for any presidential candidate but Abraham Lincoln as a betrayal of all those who had died for the cause. Millions of copies were distributed to ensure his re-election. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant said that Nast "did as much as any one man to preserve the Union and bring the war to an end."

The Invention Of Santa Claus

Nast was involved in the creation or refinement of some of the most iconic images in American society: the elephant for the Republican Party, the donkey for the Democrats, Uncle Sam, and America as a graceful woman, Columbia. But nothing matched his creation of the modern Santa Claus.

Nast's first depiction of St. Nick was in Harper's in 1863, recruiting him for sentimental and patriotic roles. He was drawn dressed in a star-spangled robe with a flag, as he flew above children in a Union Army camp playing with toys he had delivered.

By the 1870s, he had children of his own and Christmas was well-established nationally as a family holiday (previously celebrated either as a serious religious event or an excuse for drunken merriment). His drawings became a central part of Harper's seasonal fare.

"Nast popularized the image of Santa Claus by transforming him into the jolly figure known today," said Ryan Hyman, curator of the Macculloch Hall Historical Museum in Morristown, N.J., where Nast made his home in 1872. It houses the nation's largest collection of Nast's work. "His images showed Santa delivering gifts to children, but also included him in his political cartoons, such as one showing a stern-looking Santa threatening not to bring Congressmen any presents if they did not behave. His Christmas drawings remain popular today."

By 1870, Boss Tweed's Tammany Hall's organization had taken control of New York City and the state legislature. Tweed came to fear Nast's cartoons attacking its corruption so much that he offered a bribe of $500,000 (worth $10 million now) to get him to stop. The Tweed Ring was voted out of power in November 1871, and Tweed was convicted of fraud, cementing Nast's reputation.

Grant acknowledged Nast's role in his presidential victories in 1868 and 1872. Nast helped Rutherford Hayes become president in 1876, but became disillusioned by his Reconstruction policies, which did not protect former slaves. In 1880, Nast opposed Republican James Garfield because of a railroad financing scandal and refused to criticize Winfield Scott, the former Union general and Democrat, who was a friend. Garfield won, but was assassinated. His vice president, Chester Arthur, who became president, refused to run in 1884 because of ill health. Nast could not support the corrupt GOP nominee, James Blaine, so for the first time backed a Democrat, Grover Cleveland, who won by a narrow margin.

Nast had gone on lucrative lecture tours in 1873 and 1884. He left Harper's in 1886, then lost most of his fortune the following year when he and Grant invested with a swindler, so he went back to lecturing. He started his own magazine in 1892, but that failed. Then he accepted a job offer from a fan, President Theodore Roosevelt, to become a consul in Ecuador, where he died of yellow fever in 1902.

"His work appears regularly in the works of modern cartoonists, who reference his images and know his role in establishing political cartooning in the U.S.," said Halloran. "Nast is part of our national legacy of political satire."

Nast's Keys

Overcame: Difficulties in school.

Lesson: Perfect your skills and don't be shy about touting them.

"Thomas Nast has been our best recruiting sergeant." - President Abraham Lincoln

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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