Tuesday, 27 January 2009


Thomas Nast "Father of the American Cartoon"

Thomas Nast (1840 -1902) was born in Germany and immigrated to New York City with his parents in 1846. After leaving the National Academy of Design at 15, Nast started working as a draftsman for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, before joining Harpers Weekly, three years later. Nast drew for Harpers Weekly from 1859 to 1860 and from 1862 until 1886. In 1860 he went to England for the New York Illustrated News to depict one of the major sporting events of the era, the prize fight between the American John C. Heenan and the English Thomas Sayers. A few months later he joined Garibaldi in Italy and his cartoons and articles about the Garibaldi military campaign to unify Italy captured the popular imagination in the U.S.

During his career, Thomas Nast used the power of the cartoon to challenge issues such as slavery, segregation, the inflation of the currency and the Ku Klux Klan and was instrumental in the presidential election of Ulysses Grant in 1868 and 1872; in the latter campaign, Nast's ridicule of Horace Greeley's candidacy was especially merciless. Nast became a close friend of President Grant and the two families shared regular dinners until Grant's death.

His cartoons were, however, at their most 'poisonous' and effective in the downfall of Boss Tweed, who so feared Nast's campaign that an emissary was sent to offer Nast a $500,000 bribe (a huge sum at that time) to "drop this Ring business" and take a trip abroad. Declining the offer, Nast pressed his attack, and Tweed was arrested in 1873 and convicted of fraud.

Many cartoons were produced by Nast in this campaign to rid the City of the embezzlement and corruption rife within the Tweed City Hall administration including one which depicted all the main characters standing in a circle, each pointing the finger of blame at another.

Nast's first use of the famous cruel and avaricious Tamany Tiger symbol
Nast's cartoon's still came back to trouble Tweed after his conviction, as when he attempted to escape justice in December 1875 by fleeing to Cuba and from there to Spain, officials in Vigo, Spain were able to identify the fugitive by using one of Nast's cartoons.

With the death of Fletcher Harper in 1877, Nast lost an important champion at Harper's Weekly Journal, and his contributions became less frequent. He focused on oil paintings and book illustrations, but these are comparatively unimportant. He quit Harper's Weekly in 1886. Nast lost his forum and in losing him, Harper's Weekly lost its political importance.

It is, perhaps, unarguable, that any other political cartoonist's work before or since Thomas Nast has had a greater impact on the course of history.

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