Thomas Nast Biography

Journalist, Illustrator(1840–1902)
Thomas Nast is known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," having created satirical art during the 19th century that critiqued slavery and crime.

Synopsis

Thomas Nast was born in Landau, Germany, on September 27, 1840. His family moved to New York City around the time he was 6. Nast did poorly in school, preferring drawing to schoolwork, and eventually dropped out. In 1855 he landed his first illustration job, and several years later joined the staff of Harper's Weekly. While there, Nast quickly made a name for himself as a political cartoonist, focusing on such topics as the Civil War, slavery and corruption. Nast would also become known for the modern representation of Santa Claus as a jolly, rotund man living at the North Pole. In 1886, Nast left Harper's Weekly and fell on hard times. In 1902, he was appointed general counsel to Ecuador. While in that country, he contracted yellow fever and died on December 7, 1902.

Early Life

Born on September 27, 1840, in Landau, Germany, cartoonist Thomas Nast was best known for his powerful sketches of the Civil War and his influential political images. Around the age of 6, Nast moved to the United States with his mother and sister, and they settled in New York City. His father joined the family several years later.

From an early age, Nast showed an interest in drawing. He preferred doodling over doing his homework and proved to be a poor student, eventually dropping out of regular school around the age of 13. He then studied for a time at the National Academy of Art, but when his family could no longer afford his tuition, Nast went to work, landing a job in 1855 doing illustrations for Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.

Influential Political Cartoonist

In 1862, Nast joined the staff of Harper's Weekly as an artist. He worked for the publication for roughly 25 years. Early in his career there, Nast earned acclaim for his depictions of the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln once described him as the "best recruiting sergeant" for the Union cause because his sketches encouraged others to join the fight.

By the 1870s, Nast primarily focused his efforts on political cartoons. He led a crusade against corruption, using his images to help remove William Magear "Boss" Tweed and his peers from power. Tweed ran the Democratic Party in New York. In September 1871, Nast depicted Tweed, New York Mayor A. Oakey Hall and several others as a group of vultures surrounding a corpse labeled "New York." The cartoon supposedly upset Tweed so much that he offered Nast a bribe of $500,000 (100 times Nast's annual salary at the time) to leave town. Nast refused and continued to draw attention to Tweed's misdeeds. Eventually, it was Tweed who fled the country, to avoid prosecution.

During his time at Harper's Weekly, Nast also created the still-popular images of the Democratic Party represented by a donkey and the Republican Party by an elephant. Nast is further believed to be responsible for the modern representation of Santa Claus as a jolly, rotund man in a red suit, and to be the first to have suggested that Santa could be found at the North Pole and that kids could send him their wish lists there.

Final Years

After parting ways with Harper's Weekly in 1886, Nast soon fell on hard times. His illustration work began to dry up and his investments failed, ultimately leaving him and his family nearly destitute. In 1902, Nast received help from his longtime friend Theodore Roosevelt, who appointed him the position of U.S. counsel general for Ecuador. Nast hoped that this new position would allow him earn enough to pay off some debts and help his family.

Unfortunately, when Nast arrived in Ecuador that July, the country was in the midst of a yellow fever outbreak. Nast contracted the disease in December and succumbed to the illness soon after, on December 7, 1902. Despite his tragic end, he is still remembered as one of the most successful political cartoonists of all time.

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