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Artist Biography
Thomas Nast (1840-1902)

NastNast was born 30 September, 1840, in Landau, Bavaria. In 1846 his family immigrated to the United States, settling in New York City. Despite the wish of Nast's parents that he learn a practical trade, he was obsessed with drawing. His determination was rewarded when he was permitted to study under Theodore Kaufmann, a German émigré whose specialty was historical painting. He continued to develop his talent by entering the Academy of Design in 1853. Two years later, in 1855, Nast was hired as a staff artist for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. He also began contributing freelance work to both Harper's Weekly and the New York Illustrated News by 1858.

The first great success enjoyed by Nast as an artist came from his coverage of the Civil War for Harper's Weekly, which he began in 1862. Nast was able to time and again inspire and bolster the resolve of the war-weary North by his unprecedented ability to capture the concept of Unionism and imbibe it with a patriotic expediency. His skillful use of allegorical figures and images within a melodramatic framework "moved President Lincoln to refer to him as 'our best recruiting sergeant.'" Historians similarly agree that Nast's stinging attacks on the Democratic Party's Peace campaign of 1864 effectively associated the candidacy of General McClellan's with cowardice and Southern appeasement, which crucially tipped the election narrowly in Lincoln's favor. Nast's instincts as an editorial cartoonist were well tuned by the war's end, at which time he turned his efforts against Lincoln's successor Andrew Johnson.

Nast is most famous for his cartoons against the Tweed Ring in New York City. Beginning in 1870, Nast launched a campaign to bring to light the extensive web of corruption, kickbacks, and abuse of power so much a part of the city government during that time. Boss Tweed acknowledged Nast's effectiveness "when he observed that while many of his constituents could not read, they could still understand 'those damn pictures!'" The portrayals Nast created of Tweed were so convincing that the local authorities in Spain, "interpreting a Nast cartoon of Tweed as evidence that he was wanted for kidnapping, arrested and extradited him to the United States in 1876" as Tweed was seeking exile in that country.

Perhaps Nast's most notable legacy in American popular art is his contribution of lasting symbols. Santa Claus, his best known, first appeared in 1862. Added to this is the Tammany Tiger (used to represent Tammany Hall and the Tweed Ring), the donkey (created in 1870 to designate the Democrats), and the elephant (his symbol of the Republican party first used in 1874).

By the mid-1880s, Nast's contributions to Harper's began to dwindle. They ended completely in 1886. Due to unwise investments, Nast fell heavily into debt. Learning of his financial difficulties, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him Consul to Ecuador in 1902, where he died either of malaria or yellow fever within six months of his arrival.


Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, eds. American National Biography. Vol. 16. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Horn, Maurice, ed. Contemporary Graphic Artists. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research Company, 1987.

McGuire, William, and Leslie Wheeler. American Social Leaders. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1993.