Published: December 17, 2002
Thomas Nast at the Macculloch Hall Historical Museum
By Stephen May
MORRISTOWN, N.J. – Thomas Nast, the artist who pinned the donkey on Democrats, gave Republicans their elephant, depicted the voracious Tammany Tiger and created iconic images of Santa Claus and Uncle Sam, is the subject of a rich and evocative exhibition. Marking the centennial of his death, “Thomas Nast Portrays a Changing America” documents not only the qualities that made Nast (1840-1902) America’s greatest political cartoonist, but offers examples of his under-appreciated achievements as an oil painter.
The show, on view at the handsome Macculloch Hall Historical Museum in his adopted hometown through January 12, demonstrates that the inventiveness and power of Nast’s art, reflecting his passionate beliefs, are as clear today as they were a century ago. The display suggests why no cartoonist in history has equaled Thomas Nast in swaying public opinion.
The Macculloch Hall exhibition, comprising some 70 paintings, watercolors, wood engravings, lithographs and pen and ink sketches, is drawn primarily from the museum’s large Nast collection, and covers the totality of the artist’s career.
Nast became a consistent voice of post-Civil War radical Republicanism, which dominated the nation’s political landscape for much of the second half of the Nineteenth Century. He believed in principles of popular government, championed the rights of blacks, Chinese immigrants and Native Americans, promoted constant progress, viewed morals and politics in pragmatic ways and promoted a nationalistic foreign policy backed by powerful armed forces. At the same time, Nast conveyed his firm belief that Democrats, the Irish and Catholicism were malign influences in American life.
The artist who was to have such a profound effect on this country was born in a military barracks in Landau, German. His father was a trombonist in a Bavarian regimental band. At the age of 6, Nast moved with his family to the United States. After attending public schools in New York City, he displayed unusual drawing talents in art school at an early age.
At the age of 14 Nast had to interrupt his art training and set aside his ambition to be a history painter to take a job to support his family. He began as an illustrator for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, the first successful pictorial periodical in this country with a circulation of 160,000.
In this role Nast depicted everything from boxing matches to abolitionist John Brown’s funeral to President Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration.
At the outset of the Civil War, the precocious young artist sketched and later painted New York’s boisterous send-off as crowds cheered the Seventh Regiment parading down a flag-bedecked Broadway headed for the docks to begin their trip south to defend Washington. “The Departure of the Seventh Regiment to the War, April 19th 1861” (1869) remains an awesome sight hanging today in Manhattan’s Seventh Regiment Armory.
In 1862 Nast became a staff artist for Harper’s Weekly, the most important vehicle for transmitting information and shaping public opinion in the wartime North. Having by this time received some classical training at the National Academy of Design, Nast drew tightly controlled, accurate pictures that were then engraved as illustrations by newspaper and magazine artisans. He depicted Confederates sacking a village, McClellan reviewing his troops and the battles of Antietam, Vicksburg and Gettysburg. In the highly sentimental “Christmas Eve,” appearing in Harper’s Weekly in 1863, he showed the contrast between a soldier at a campfire and his wife praying back home.
Especially memorable is Nast’s “Entrance of the 55th Massachusetts (Colored) Regiment into Charlestown [sic], S.C. February 21, 1865,” 1865, showing black Union soldiers marching through the streets of the devastated city, cheered by freed African American slaves. This smallish picture is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Nast’s graphic art generated support for the Union cause, while also bringing home the terrible nature of war. His pictorial praise of Northern activities contrasted with his savage portrayals of Confederate misdeeds, such as maltreatment of Union prisoners.
Nast’s work attracted wide attention and applause in the North. “Thomas Nast has been our best recruiting sergeant,” Lincoln declared. “His emblematic cartoons have never failed to arouse enthusiasm and patriotism, and have always seemed to come just when these articles were getting scarce.” General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union forces, said Nast “did as much as any man to preserve the Union and bring the war to an end.”
In gratitude for his stalwart support for the Union Army, following the war 3,500 veterans commissioned Tiffany & Co. to create a sterling silver testimonial canteen. Featuring a double portrait of Nash and Columbia, the uplifting symbol of America, this handsome piece is in the Macculloch Hall collection.
After the war Nast organized a traveling show of 33 9- by 12-foot canvases, called “The Grand Caricaturama,” that offered satirical vignettes of American history from the landing at Plymouth Rock to the presidency of Andrew Johnson. Accompanied by music and an explanatory lecture, the paintings were shown sequentially on stages in New York and Boston.
In “The Last Ditch,” 1867, a tempera on fabric, Grant, accompanied by Sheridan, wields his sword to behead Confederate leader Robert E. Lee. In “Palace of Tears: 1867,” Nast depicted President Johnson, whom he despised, presiding over the 1866 convention of Democrats, where North-South harmony was promoted. Celebrating the new unity between the regions, delegates shed large tears.
Nast developed the image of Santa Claus as we know him today, starting with a “Santa Claus in Camp,” a Harper’s Weekly illustration in 1863 showing a jolly old elf, his fur coat festooned with the stars and stripes of the Union flag, distributing Christmas gifts to Northern soldiers.
The evolution of the original gnomelike figure into the now familiar jolly, red-cheeked, rotund personality is epitomized by “Merry Old Santa Claus,” 1881. (This endearing image is also featured in an exhibition, “Winter Visions from the Collection,” on view at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Penn., through January 5).
Nast popularized the picture of Uncle Sam as the symbol of the US government, depicting him as a tall, slim figure with a wispy beard, top hat and striped trousers. He also developed the figure of Columbia as a symbol of America’s most virtuous side, often teaming her with Uncle Sam, as in “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner,” 1869. While Uncle Sam carves the turkey at the head of a table crowded with 28 people representing various ethnic groups, Columbia is flanked by a black man and a Chinese man at the other end.
A staunch Republican, in 1874 Nast launched the elephant, which had long stood for power and size, as the symbol of the national Republican Party. In the wake of the bitterly contested presidential election of 1876, in which Republican Rutherford B. Hayes bested Democrat Samuel Tilden, the artist depicted the Republican elephant nursing his wounds. “Another Such Victory, and I am Undone” appeared as a wood engraving in Harper’s Weekly in 1877.
After trying a number of animals to symbolize the Democratic Party, including a dog, fox, rooster, snake, the Tammany Tiger and a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Nast settled on the donkey. That animal, representing the poor, was used by Benjamin Franklin at the Constitutional Convention and was subsequently linked to the populism of President Andrew Jackson.
In “Stranger Things Have Happened,” a Harper’s Weekly illustration of 1879, a Democratic Senator who advocated “hard money” clutches the tail of a donkey to prevent it from falling into financial chaos. In the background a Republican Senator who favored the status quo stands beside a sleeping elephant. Each animal is marked with its political party label.
Nast’s fame and reputation rest most importantly on his relentless campaign against New York City’s notorious Tweed Ring, the corrupt political machine that ruled Tammany Hall and New York City from 1866 to 1871. His primary target was bloated, sad-eyed William Marcy Tweed, boss of the Democratic organization, Tammany Hall.
Some of the artist’s most potent and familiar anti-Tweed Ring cartoons are featured in the Macculloch Hall exhibition. They are deliciously malevolent and graphic to this day.
“The Tammany Tiger Loose – What Are You Going to Do About It?” one of the most powerful political cartoons of all time, appeared in Harper’s Weekly on the eve of the elections of 1871. As a corpulent Tweed and a throng look on, Tammany Hall’s tiger has rampaged through the civic arena and now, teeth bared, claws the downed figure of Columbia, representing New York’s innocent citizenry.
Nast’s powerful images constituted “a sustained attack which in its passion and effectiveness stands alone in the history of American graphic art,” once observed art historian Morton Keller. Fully aware of the threat the artist’s savage visual assaults posed to his power, Tweed is said to have remarked, “I don’t care a straw for your newspaper articles — my constituents don’t know how to read. But they can’t help seeing them damned pictures.”
The Boss tried unsuccessfully to bribe and threaten Nast and Harper Brothers to stop the cartoons. Fear for his family’s safety prompted Nast to move to Morristown, N.J., a Republican bastion, but he kept up the attack.
Eventually Tweed and leaders of the ring were tried and sentenced to prison, but The Boss escaped to Cuba and then Spain. In 1876, identified from a Nast cartoon, Tweed was arrested in Spain and extradited to the United States. He died in a New York City jail two years later.
After decades of crusades against the vices and follies of the day, Nast’s illustrations fell out of favor by the late 1870s. In 1886 he ended his long association with Harper’s Weekly.
Before long disastrous investments and lack of a steady income put Nast’s finances in a precarious state. He approached President Theodore Roosevelt about a government job and in 1902 was appointed consul general in Guyaquil, Ecuador. It was a low-paying position in a squalid, disease- infested outpost that the hard-pressed artist accepted with reluctance. Within a few months after his arrival in Ecuador he died of yellow fever. Nast was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
Created with verve, fire and imagination, Nast’s art mirrored the most powerful public emotions of a time of dramatic change in this country. Indeed, his work is so compelling that much of it retains its pertinence to this day.
Congratulations to all hands at Macculloch Hall for mount-ing this rewarding, informative and visually appealing reminder of Thomas Nast’s enduring contributions to America’s history.
Two useful, illustrated Nast booklets, published by Macculloch Hall, are on sale in the museum. Thomas Nast Portrays a Changing America, 2002, provides insightful commentaries on works in the current exhibition. Thomas Nast & The Glorious Cause, 1996, contains an overview of the artist’s career by curator Alice Abel Caulkins and a treatment of Nast’s Civil War art by Lincoln and Civil War authority Harold Holzer. They sell for $5 each, plus shipping.
Located in the heart of Morristown’s National Historic District, Macculloch Hall Historical Museum is an imposing Federal-style brick mansion built around 1810 by businessman George Macculloch. It was acquired in 1949 by local philanthropist W. Parsons Todd, who restored it to house his large collection of Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Century American and British fine and decorative arts. They are displayed these days in ten period rooms and eight exhibition galleries.
The museum’s unparalleled Thomas Nast Collection, numbering some 3,000 pieces, was acquired by Todd from Nast’s son, Cyril. Stored in the Nast home, across Macculloch Avenue from the museum, it simply had to be carted across the street to Macculloch Hall. Today, the elegant, white Nast house, “Villa Fontana,” is a private residence listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Macculloch Hall Historical Museum is located at 45 Macculloch Avenue. For information, 973-538-2404.
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