Thomas Nast

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Portrait from Harper's Weekly , 1867

Thomas Nast (born September 27, 1840 in Landau in the Palatinate ; † December 7, 1902 in Guayaquil , Ecuador ) was a German-American cartoonist . He is considered the father of American political cartoon .


Nast's first interview with Frank Leslie

Nast was born in a barracks in Landau in the Palatinate, he was the son of a musician in the band of the 9th Bavarian Infantry Regiment. His mother, Appolinia Abriss, emigrated with him and his sister to New York City in 1846 to escape the poor conditions at home. His father joined him four years later to evade his draft.

Thomas Nast had great difficulties getting used to it. In addition to not being able to speak the English language, he did not like school. This continued for many years. A neighbor was a candle maker and also made wax crayons . He gave Thomas discarded crayons and Thomas spent hours painting. The teacher convinced the parents to take 12-year-old Thomas out of school and send him to a painting school, which he attended for a long time. It was extremely difficult to find a job for Thomas because he could neither write nor read properly. In addition, he was short and fat and therefore unsuitable for physical work. His only ability was that he could draw what he saw. He had drawing lessons from Theodore Kaufmann for about half a year . He then copied pictures in the Thomas Jefferson Bryan Gallery of Christian Art in New York.

He gathered up all his courage and went into the offices of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and asked for a job as an illustrator . When he was rejected, he was not disappointed. He was determined to get a job and so he became persistent. One day he managed to get past reception and straight to Frank Leslie . He thought Nast's proposal hopeless, but commissioned him to draw the ferry in Manhattan while crowds of people boarded the rush hour. The next morning Nast showed up with his drawing, and Frank Leslie was so impressed that he immediately hired Nast.

From 1855 to 1858 Thomas Nast worked for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and learned everything about the art of woodcut here . Frank Leslie had the revolutionary idea of ​​replacing large woodcuts with many smaller ones, which were then finally put back together again using a master engraver . It saved a lot of time and a job that would otherwise have taken a month could be done in one day. In 1858, Leslie's ran into financial distress and had to lay off several employees - including Nast. For a year he found work in an art studio.

In 1859 he moved to the New York Illustrated News . This newspaper sent him to England in 1860 to report on the first world boxing championship between US champion John Heenan and English champion Tom Sayers in Farnborough near London . It was a "fight of the century": In the 40th round the spectators stormed the ring and the fight was broken off in a draw. His report to New York could be broadcast over the Atlantic cable. Since he was already in Europe, he should also travel to Italy and report on the freedom fighter Giuseppe Garibaldi . With this he moved into Naples . His reports were distributed across the country.

On his return he married Sarah "Sallie" Edwards, a cousin of James Parton , with whom he was friends and who had an influence on his political views, in the fall of 1861 . With Sarah, Nast had five children, Julia, Thomas, Jr., Edith, Mabel and Cyril. Sarah sometimes helped him at work when it came to finding headlines for his caricatures.

Work for Harper's Weekly

Compromise with the south

In the beginning he worked as a freelancer at Harper's Weekly , popularly simplified Harpweek . Nast initially worked as a graphic war correspondent and visited the battlefields of the American Civil War in August . His reports were printed in the weekly newspaper and his drawings were converted into woodcuts, which often stretched over two pages. Nast's image campaigns, with which the paper stood up for the cause of the Union during the Civil War, became a resounding success and the circulation increased dramatically.

The desolate military situation strengthened the party's “peace wing” (“ Copperheads ”), led by Congressman Clement Vallandigham from Ohio and Fernando Wood from New York. Their proposal for a ceasefire and negotiations with the Confederates was accepted by the delegates with only four votes against. With his drawing of the "Chicago Party Congress" of the Democrats in August 1864 ("Dedicated to the Chicago Convention"), the 24-year-old Nast turned against this decision. He saw this as a betrayal of everything that the soldiers of the Union fight for, as well as the African-Americans. To the left stands a beaten and amputated Union soldier, his face hidden in shame, who extends his hand to the triumphant Jefferson Davis, Confederate President. Davis stands in a boot disrespectfully on the grave of another soldier, at whose grave the kneeling Columbia weeps and on whose grave stone it says: Union Heroes in a Useless War ("Union Heroes in a Useless War"). In the upper left corner, the American flag is hung upside down as a sign of emergency. Nast's message is clear: if negotiations with the Confederates continue, then Union soldiers have sacrificed their limbs and lives in vain, and African-Americans are returning to slavery.

His first serious cartoon was the cartoon "Peace in 1862," which was directed against those from the north who were protesting against the continuation of the American Civil War . This and one other cartoon was featured in Harper's Weekly during the Civil War . Nast was known for drawing battlefields from the so-called border states and the southern states. These attracted a great deal of attention, which is why President Abraham Lincoln named Nast the best recruiting sergeant .

In 1867, Nast created 33 large tempera paintings (8 feet by 12 feet; equivalent to 2.44 m by 3.66 m) depicting an allegory of the nation's recent history. The exhibition opened in New York on December 4, 1867 and was shown in Boston from March 30. The enormous images were rolled across the stage, accompanied by piano music and a satirical commentary performed by an actor. His “ Grand Caricaturama ” was a success with the critics, but a financial failure.

Nast's campaign against tweed

Caricature of William Tweed's election fraud

In New York, William Tweed had gotten to the point where his people could count the votes themselves in every city council election, and in September 1869, thanks to a managed city council resolution, he was chairing the audit committee that oversaw all city spending. In addition to Tweed, three of his loyal followers sat on the four-person committee - the city treasury was finally released for looting. Nast's caricatures about the corruption of Tammany Hall and its “party machine” under Tweed led to the dismissal and condemnation of Tweed. Nast mastered the art of presenting difficult facts in an easily understandable manner. Tweed is said to have once said: “I don't care what the newspapers publish about me, because my sheep can't read anyway. But they understand these drawings. ”Nast continued his work on Tweed despite death threats and attempts at bribery.

It was also the caricatures by Nast that were used as the basis for the wanted posters against Tweed. After Tweed was finally convicted of corruption in 1874 and unable to pay bail, he fled to Cuba in 1875. On his further escape to the Galician port city of Vigo in Spain , officials recognized Tweed on the basis of Nast's caricatures, arrested him and extradited him to the USA in 1876.

Thomas Nast (wealthy)
Thomas Nast (1840–1902)

Nast lived from 1872 to 1902 in Morristown , New Jersey in the "Villa Fontana". Around 1880 Thomas Nast was described as a wealthy man. His income was little less than that of the President of the United States. His real estate in Harlem, New York was valued at $ 90,000. He also owned $ 60,000 in government bonds. His home in Morristown, New Jersey, was valued at $ 100,000. At the height of his career (mid-1870s) Harper's Weekly paid him a base salary of $ 20,000 pa plus $ 150 for every woodcut they published. A large part of his income came from his lectures. He was one of the first to draw at his lectures, drawing quickly on a large blank sheet of paper as he spoke.

Nast also illustrated more than 70 books, including an early copy of Robinson Crusoe . In 1871 he accompanied Mark Twain on a trip to Canada. In his later years he toured, lectured, and painted oil paintings.

After Fletcher Harper's death on May 29, 1877, the new editor, George W. Curtis , took a more conservative line and often had disagreements with Nast over his drawings. As a result, fewer of Nast's drawings were published and never more on the title page. This change of course on the part of the editor, combined with the newly invented reproduction process for illustrations, resulted in Nast's last two woodcuts appearing in the 1886 Christmas edition of Harper's Weekly.

His contributions to other magazines were erratic - perhaps due to the pain in his hands. He lost his savings in 1884 when the Grant & Ward bank went bankrupt.

Around 1890 he published Thomas Nast's Christmas Drawings for the Human Race . He later tried to start a magazine. This failed, however, and so Theodore Roosevelt sent him in 1902 as Consul General to Guayaquil , Ecuador in South America . During a severe yellow fever epidemic , Nast was spared for a long time and helped with numerous diplomatic missions and deals until he eventually infected himself and died in 1902 at the age of 62.

His body was transferred to the United States and buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx .

His descendants live in Offenbach and Mannheim. Every year the Thomas-Nast-Nikolausmarkt takes place in Landau in the Palatinate.

The rocket station (first Nike Hercules, later PATRIOT ) maintained by the American armed forces on Landauer Ebenberg during the Cold War until the beginning of the 1990s also owes its name to him: Camp Thomas Nast.

His legacy

Nast created a variety of cartoons, mostly using woodcut techniques . Some are still very well known today. He created the symbolic figure elephant for the Republican Party of the USA. He did not invent the donkey for the Democratic Party , but he used it too, popularizing the two party symbols. He used the figure of Columbia as a symbol for America and the dollar sign to underline a person or organization's focus on money. He also made a significant contribution to the popularity of the character Uncle Sam .

Image of Santa Claus

Merry Old Santa Claus , woodcut in Harper's Weekly - January 1, 1881
Giving presents to the soldiers, cover picture in Harper's Weekly - January 3, 1863
  • Version 1:

In 1862, Thomas Nast found himself in a bind with a deadline approaching rapidly. The editor of Harper's Weekly, Fletcher Harper, had been asked by President Abraham Lincoln to put a "special Christmas picture" of Nast on the front page, linking the upcoming festive season with the ongoing war. However, Nast was in a real blockade of drawing and had no idea what he wanted / should draw. He discussed his predicament with his sister Bertha, who was a teacher in New York and was visiting him. Together they remembered their early childhood in Germany and talked about the difference between the German “Belzenickel” and the American Santa Claus. Bertha mentioned how her school class loves to treat Clement Moore's poem "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" every year . After his sister left, Nast worked feverishly all night and the next morning he was able to deliver his drawing in the newspaper. The Christmas edition of Harper's Weekly went on sale on January 3, 1863. The front page showed Santa Claus, dressed in patriotic trousers with stripes and a jacket with stars ("Stars and Stripes"), visiting soldiers in a field camp while he is distributing Christmas presents from his sleigh. Nasts Santa is surrounded by hectic activity. A soldier opens his Christmas box, in which he finds a stuffed stocking, while a comrade behind him finds a meerschaum pipe. In the foreground, a “jack-in-the-box” jumping out surprises two young drummers. In the background, soldiers chase a pig while another climbs a pole with a wallet nailed to it. Some play "football", others prepare the Christmas dinner. The fort on the hill greets Santa's visit with a salute. Perhaps the most interesting detail about this drawing is the special gift in Santa's hand. She is holding a jumping jack who is none other than Jefferson Davis , President of the Confederate States of America. The resemblance to Jefferson Davis is clear. What's even more interesting is that it appears Davis has a rope around his neck, making Santa appear to be lynching Jefferson Davis.

Within the same issue, Nast shows Santa Claus in a second drawing, but this time with a more traditional Christmas feel. Under the title “Christmas Eve”, the double circle picture shows a woman kneeling at the foot of a cot and praying for her husband's safety. In the other circle, he is shown sitting alone in front of a fire and looking sadly at photos of his family. In the upper left corner of the drawing room, Santa Claus is shown descending a fireplace; in the upper right, handing out presents and riding in a sleigh pulled by reindeer.

The same family can be found in the issue of Harper weekly of December 26th, 1863. In “Christmas 1863” you can see the couple happily united, because the man is on leave from the war front.

  • Thomas Nast's Original "Civil War Christmas" Print 1863
  • Santa Claus in camp, Christmas 1862
  • Christmas Eve, 1863
  • Christmas Eve, 1864
  • Santa Claus 1865
  • Version 2

Since Nast still lacked reading skills, his wife read to him while he made his drawings and engravings. Once she read him the poem by Clement Moore (1779–1863) Twas a Night Before Christmas , which fired his imagination. His first Santa Claus appeared in Harper's Weekly Christmas 1862 and still had a religious appearance. Over the years, he became more and more of the Santa we know.

Over the next 24 years, Nast created 76 Christmas woodcuts, which he signed and published. Based on Moore's poem, he made everything visually visible: the sleigh with the reindeer, a workshop where gifts are made, elves who filled the stockings that hung by the fireplace, and so on. He also came up with the idea that bad children do not receive gifts as well as writing a letter to Santa. By having Santa live at the North Pole, Nast had become international.

In Europe, St. Nicholas' Day has been celebrated on December 6th for centuries. In the late 19th century, when Nasts Santa Claus was known nationwide, Christmas Day was legally introduced on December 25th in all states and territories of the United States. In addition, school holidays became common during the Christmas season. The custom of sending out Christmas cards soon followed.

  • Version 3:

Nast's ideas about Santa Claus could also have influenced the Palatinate Furry , German Santa Claus and Dutch Sinterklaas , they also take on more recent American influences (“Santa Claus”). During his engagement for the Unionists in the civil war, he began in 1863 with depictions of a Santa Claus in their red and white colors, who gives presents to the brave soldiers from a sled. Later it became the pipe-smoking, cozy and jolly old woman. Nast painted these stories for the rest of his life, but it was not until 1923 that the now famous Santa Claus was drawn in the course of an advertising campaign by the New York beverage manufacturer White Rock Beverages for its popular dry ginger ale.

Thomas Nast Prize

The Thomas Nast Foundation Landau eV has been awarding the undoped Thomas Nast Prize annually since 1977 to deserving German and American political cartoonists.

Thomas Nast visiting professor

The department for cultural and social sciences at the University of Koblenz-Landau awards the Thomas Nast guest professorship on the Landau campus to outstanding scientists and artists from Germany or abroad for a period of approx. 2 to 6 weeks.



Web links

Commons : Thomas Nast  - collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. Richard Grant White: Companion to the Bryan Gallery of Christian Art: containing critical descriptions of the pictures, and biographical sketches of the painters. Publisher: Baker, Godwin & Co., New York 1853 ( ).
  2. Grand Caricaturama in HarpWeek. (No longer available online.) Archived from the original ; accessed on January 7, 2019 .
  3. ^ Albert Boime : Thomas Nast and the French Art . In: The American Art Journal . May 1972, p. 43–63 ( [PDF; 6.6 MB ; accessed on January 7, 2019]).
  4. ^ Santa Claus Pictures. Thomas Nast's Santa Clause Pictures 1862-1865, during the American Civil War. In: . Retrieved January 7, 2019 .
  5. Fur (s) nickel. In: Palatinate dictionary . Retrieved January 7, 2019 . Compare the similar fur coat
  6. a b Kristian Klooss: Advertising legend - How Coca-Cola did not invent Santa Claus. In: manager magazin . December 24, 2012, accessed January 7, 2019 .
  7. In Seven Steps - How Abraham Lincoln Invented Santa Claus. In: SPIEGEL ONLINE . December 22, 2012, accessed January 7, 2019 .
  8. Michael Martin: Santa Claus from the Palatinate. Santa Claus and the dollar sign: How the cartoonist Thomas Nast from Landau shaped America's corporate identity. In: ZEIT ONLINE . December 5, 2002, accessed on January 7, 2019 (the author is a historian and heads the city archive in Landau).
  9. Thomas Nast Prize. In: CULTURAL PRIZES . Retrieved January 7, 2019 .
  10. Thomas Nast Visiting Professorship at the University of Koblenz-Landau