Thomas Nast has been called the father of American political cartooning, and rightly so. He is responsible for the initial portrayal of the Republican and Democratic parties as elephant and donkey and created the familiar image of Uncle Sam to represent the US as a whole (with a little help from English illustrator Sir John Tenniel, who added the beard). He also created the famous pen and ink image of a holly-crowned Santa Claus, with clay pipe and arm full of toys (including a sword), that is still used today.
Tenniel, creator of the definitive illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, had a major influence on Nast’s style, as did English illustrator and Punch cartoonist John Leech. Nast also probably took inspiration from the drawings and graphics of Gustave Doré. Nast’s drawings were often lavish, highly rendered pen and ink tableaux, with side drawings and additional panels.
Nast was also influential on other artists. Harper’s has a showcase site for his work, The World of Thomas Nast, that emphasizes the influence he had on Vincent Van Gogh (who also used to collect Howard Pyle illustrations) and Edgar Degas.
Nast had a distinct effect on the politics of his day and the course of American history. He was an active adversary of slavery during the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln is said to have credited Nast as “our best recruiting sergeant”.
Nast’s most famous and effective series of cartoons is directly credited with helping to bring down William “Boss” Tweed, the corrupt and enormously powerful political leader of New York City in the mid 1800’s. Nast did most of his work for Harper’s Weekly, which withstood intimidation by the Tweed organization and the loss of book contracts with the NY school system during the campaign. Nast himself turned down a bribe of $500,000, an enormous sum at the time and one hundred times his salary from Harper’s.
Boss Tweed was eventually ousted and fled to Spain, where officials reportedly used a Nast cartoon to identify him and return him to the US to face corruption charges.
Nast was also a pioneer in the use of exaggerated caricature in his cartoons, the tradition in English political commentary drawings had been straightforward portrayals of the individuals.
Nast was friends with Ulysses Grant and a strong supporter of the Republican party, but in 1884 he supported the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland and helped get him elected.
While he had a history of supporting the abolition of slavery and supporting Chinese Americans and American Indians, he exhibited overt bigotry in his treatment of Irish Americans, who he associated with Tweed’s power base, and expressed anti-Catholic sentiment in many of his cartoons.
Guess he just had a nasty streak.