Thomas Nast: His Period and His Pictures (1904) Part 1

Thomas Nast: His Period and His Pictures by Albert Bigelow Paine. Published by The Macmillan Company, New York and London in 1904. 583 pages and over 425 illustrations. Available via Google Books.

This is part one of a series of posts about Paine's biography of the caricaturist Thomas Nast and research I did spurred on by reading the book. - DonkeyHotey

Thomas Nast Caricature by DonkeyHotey

Thomas Nast Caricature by DonkeyHotey


Thomas Nast was born in Landau, Germany in 1840. Through his effort and passion he earned the appellation "Father of the American Cartoon." He defined the art of illustrating American political ideas and conflicts in the second half of the 19th century. Many of the symbols he created or popularized are still in use today including the Republican Elephant, Democratic Donkey, Uncle Sam and Santa Claus. From meager beginnings, he achieved significant wealth and tremendous fame. He produced over 3,000 pictures in his career in the service of his goal to vanquish the corrupt and champion the just. He is often remembered for his work challenging the crooked Ring of Boss Tweed in New York, bringing the pain and valor of the Civil War to the families at home, and his many illustrations of Santa Claus and Christmas. He work is still stirring controversy today as people look back at some of his depictions of ethnic minorities. Thomas Nast was not perfect, but he was a good husband, father and friend. And he counted among his friends and admirers Lincoln, Grant, Roosevelt, Twain and many other leading figures of his time. As his life neared it's end he had lost his fortune and much of his fame. He died away from his family of Yellow Fever, serving Uncle Sam as Consular to Ecuador, in pursuit of a salary to pay his mortgage.

The Age of the Illustrated Newspaper

Nast came of age professionally at a time when printing technology was changing and newspapers became capable of reproducing many hand drawn illustrations in their pages. This disruptive change was akin to the advent of motion pictures or television. The London Illustrated News and Punch Magazine took a cue from book publishers in the 1840's and embraced the art of wood block engraving for printing to create the illustrated newspaper format. This was also referred to as the pictorial press. Americans were introduced to the illustrated newspaper by Gleason's Pictorial and PT Barnum's Illustrated News in the 1850's. These ventures failed, but were soon followed more successfully by Frank Leslie's Illustrated News, Harper's Weekly and others. This expanded the market for news and information to include not only literate people, but anyone who could see.

The Lad Could Draw

Thomas Nast could draw and he started demonstrating that as soon as he picked up a crayon stick or a pencil. His family of newly minted Americans of German extraction valued education and encouraged young Thomas to attend school. Nast had mixed results as a student. His teachers did not give him high marks, but they recognized his ability to draw.   

"Go finish your picture, Nast," the teacher would say to him. "You will never learn to read or figure:" Thomas Nast: His Period and His Pictures - page 15

Nast had a variety of exposure to art and formal art training before entering the workforce. He drew on his own and studied using Harding's Drawing Copies. After attending classes taught by Theodore Kaufmann, he entered The Academy of Design and was given special attention by Alfred Fredericks who was one of the founders of the New York Water Color Society and later the American Society of Painters in Water Colors. Thomas Nast was drawing constantly including copying famous works. He associated with a dynamic cast of creative characters at this time including Samuel Coleman, Eugene Benson, William John Hennessy, John B. Whittaker and Walter Shirlaw.

On The Job Training at Leslie's

A caricature by Thomas Nast of his first interview with Frank Leslie. From  Th. Nast, His Period And His Pictures  page 18

A caricature by Thomas Nast of his first interview with Frank Leslie. From Th. Nast, His Period And His Pictures page 18

In 1856 young Thomas took his portfolio to the offices of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. Frank Leslie, born Henry Carter in England, was a pioneer in the industry and came up through the ranks as an illustrator, engraver and publisher. He was introduced to publishing working at the London Illustrated News when he was twenty. He subsequently moved to America and worked for Gleason's Pictorial followed by P.T. Barnum's Illustrated News. Leslie experimented with a variety of his own journals and finally launched his signature publication, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, when he was thirty-four. Nast met with Leslie and presented his work. The bombastic publisher liked what he saw and gave the aspiring artist his first assignment. The result of this assignment, “All aboard for the Elysian Fields!,” was not published by Leslie, but it did earn Nast a job offer at four dollars a week. Nast continued his education under the tutelage of a variety of talented coworkers employed at the publishing house. He worked for Leslie for three years. His colleagues and friends orbiting around New York publishing included: Frank Leslie, Alfred Berghaus, Jane “Jenny June” Croly, Richard Henry Stoddard, Mortimer “Doesticks” Thomson, John P. Davis, Col. Thomas Bangs "T. B." Thorpe, Henry C. Watson, and Solomon Eytinge, Jr.

Eytinge was a master engraver and gave Nast an education in this art. They were friends as well. Some other artists who's work influenced the caricaturist are John Gilbert, and John Leach and John Tenniel. Nast held Tenniel's “The British Lion's Vengeance on the Bengal Tiger” in particularly high esteem.

It was an exciting time for the rotund teen to be on the streets of New York City. Frank Leslie sent him out to illustrate fires, riots, city corruption, dastardly dairymen producing milk from diseased cows, prize fights, and a myriad of other events. The dynamism of the growing city and camaraderie of his contemporaries were a fertile environment for the hard working young Nast.

At this time in Frank Leslie's career he was inclined to spend more money than he earned. This sometimes resulted in staff missing paychecks or pay being delayed. Even so, Leslie was admired by the staff. After three years Leslie's was more seriously strapped for cash during a financial downturn. Nast left the Illustrated Newspaper following his mentor, Eystinge, over to Harper's Weekly with the assist of his old teacher Alfred Fredericks. Fredericks suggested that Nast produce a page of illustrations about a current police scandal. Thus Thomast Nast was first published on the pages of Harper's on March 19, 1859 with an illustration titled “The New York Metropolitan Police. A pictorial analysis of the report to the Legislature." It was two years before he was earning regular income from Harper's.

In November 1859 the New-York Illustrated News began operation with Nast the Eytinge on staff. The nineteen year old illustrator documented John Brown's Funeral and produced a series titled “Backgrounds of Civilization” about tenement life and more. His salary from the News during this time was forty two dollars a week.

In the next post in the series Thomas Nast goes to England for the News to illustrate an international prize fight between American John C. “Benicia Boy” Heenan, vs. Englishman Tom Sayers.

NEXT - Thomas Nast 2