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Thomas Nast
September 26, 1840 - December 7, 1902
Early Biography
The Civil War
Santa Claus
Historical Influences
Later Career

The modern image of Santa Claus was created by Thomas Nast for Harper's Weekly - January 3, 1863

"Compromise With The South" published by Harper's Weekly September 3, 1864.

The Elephant of the Republican Party was created by Thomas Nast, first appeared in Harper's Weekly, November 7, 1874.

The donkey, as used as a symbol for the democratic Party was created and polularized by Thomas Nast. January 15, 1870 - Harper's Weekly
Early Biography
Thomas Nast was born in Landau, Germany, located in the southwestern Rhineland.

At the age of six, Nast's mother moved the family to New York City. His father, a theatre trombonist and utility musician, followed along to join the famiy three years later.

It's likely that Nast was a bit of an illustrating prodigy child. The popular story goes that the young Nast, was a miserable student and still unable to read or write at the age of 15, when he is said to have forced himself on publisher Frank Leslie and demanded a job as an illustrator. It is said that Leslie told the brash teenager to go down to the Christopher Street Ferry House and illustrate the passengers boarding the ferry, apparently as a way to simply get rid of the boy. But, when Nast returned the following day with a completed assignment, Leslie hired him on the spot as a reporting artist for Frank Leslie's Illustrated News.

In 1859 at the age of 19, Nast joined the staff of New York Illustrated News. The following year he was on illustrating assignments in England and then to Italy where he reported in illustration on the Italian Revolution.

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The Civil War
It's been said that Nast's campaign posters of 1860 played a key role in electing Lincoln to office.

His real rise to illustration immortality began in 1862 when he joined Harper's Weekly as a freelancer.

Harper's used Nast as an illustrating war correspondent. He illustrated many battles and scenes from the Civil War, including 55 signed engravings for Harper's between 1862 and 1865.

The Civil War was not only a defining event for an entire generation, but a singularly defining time for Nast and his work. His engravings of the war strongly reflected his own political views of the time. Engravings depict the cruelty of slave auctions - he also creates post-war visions of a free black society and he makes it clear that his own opinion of the struggle between north and south is that it is worthy of the huge sacrifice being made in lives and personal suffering.

"Compromise with the South," is easily Nast's most famous and influencial engraving of the Civil War. Published in Harper's Weekly on September 3, 1864, it depicts Columbia (another enduring creation of Nast's) weeping at a grave marked "Union Heroes in a Useless War". A Union amputee is shown shaking a Confederate officer's hand, while in the background an black Union soldier and his family are shown being forced back into slavery. It is a remarkably poignant image, especially considering the time-frame in which Democrats were mounting an anti-war campaign against Lincoln. The image gave Nast "instant fame" and was reprinted widely by the Republicans in their effort to have Lincoln re-elected.

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Santa Claus
It's remarkable that at the height of the conflict betwen north and south, Nast created the modern image of Santa Claus for Harper's in 1863 - the same image we still associate with Santa to this day. Over the course of his career, Nast would expand on the Santa theme, creating over 70 Christmas engravings, based on the poem T'was the Night Before Christmas, by Tomas Moore. Nast is thought to have originated the idea that Santa lived at the North Pole, as well as the workshop of elves.
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Historical Influences
The year 1868 would be pivitol in shaping the legacy of Nast. For starters, his art would be widely used to aid in the successful Ulysses S. Grant campaign for the presidency.

A wonderful Grant quote from the election is that victory was due to "the sword of Sheridan and the pencil of Nast." Perhaps never again would an illustrator hold such power in his hands.

More importantly for Nast, 1868 marked the begining of his famous illustrated battle with William Magear Tweed. It's widely known that Nast was largely responsible for bringing down the notoriously corupt boss of Tammany Hall. What is less well known is that after Tweed was jailed and later escaped, he was captured in Spain due to a police officer recognizing Tweed, based only on a Nast caricature he remembered!

In 1870, Nast popularlized the donkey as the symbol of the Democratic Party, an image that endures to this day. Nast, by the way, was a Republican. Nast is also responsible for the Republican Elephant, which he first drew in 1874. Somewhere within this same time frame, Nast added a goatee to the Civil War era version of Uncle Sam, and he's been sporting it ever since.

Nast worked for Harper's for 18 years. He left in 1886 due to conflicts brought about with a change in management.

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Later Career
After leaving Harper's, Nast's influence and fortunes began a rapid decline. It may be partially the result of when photochemical reproduction began to replace woodblocks in the early 1880's. Nast slowly gave up the pencil and woodblock and began working in pen. Morton Keller wrote that " the result was a harder, sparser line to his drawings, unsparing of deficiencies of technique that had been obscured by the softer medium of block engraving. The change only underscored the fact that Nast had less and less to say; that his artistic force and imagination had declined in step with his political commitment and interest."

Also in the mix was the 1884 stock market collapse of Grant and Ward, which Nast was heavily invested in and completely bankrupted his friend Ulysses S. Grant.

In 1892, Nast purchased the New York Gazatte and renamed it after himself, calling it Nast's Weekly. The publishing venture lasted only six months and by the turn of the century, Nast had gone from great riches, to near poverty.

In 1902, Nast moved to Equador, as a Council General, appointed by President Theodor Roosevelt, apparently as a political favor to aid the then cash-poor illustrator. He died the same year, falling to yellow fever and was burid there at the port of Guayaquil. He was reburied four years later at Woodlawn Cemetary, Bronx, New York.

It's widely circulated - the result of an unknown crtic's comment of the time - that Nast was the first cartoonist to have the advantage of weekly publication in a magazine with national circulation.

Nast's obituary in Harper's Weekly "He has been called, perhaps not with accuracy, but with substantial justice, the Father of American Caricature."

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Important Dates
September 26, 1840 - Born on this date
January 3, 1863 - First appearance of the modern day Santa Claus, Harper's Weekly - by Thomas Nast
January 15, 1870 - First use of the Donkey as the symbol of the Democratic party - by Thomas Nast.
November 7, 1874 - First use of the image of an elephant to represent the Republican Party - by Thomas Nast
December 7, 1902 - Died on this date
Contributors: Nancy Stahl, Robert Zimmerman
Last updated November 17, 2008 at 9:49 am by Robert Zimmerman