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Nast was born in the barracks of Landau, Germany (now in Rhineland-Palatinate), the last child of Appolonia (Abriss) and Joseph Thomas Nast. He had a sister named Andie; two other siblings died before he was born. His Father, a trombonist in the Bavarian 9th regiment band, held political convictions that put him at odds with the Bavarian government. In 1846, Joseph Nast left Landau, enlisting first on a French man-of-war and subsequently on an American ship. He sent his wife and children to New York City, and at the end of his enlistment in 1850 he joined them there.
Nast attended school in New York City from the age of six to fourteen. He did poorly at his lessons, but his passion for drawing was apparent from an early age. In 1854, he was enrolled for about a year of study with Alfred Fredericks and Theodore Kaufmann, and then at the school of the National Academy of Design. In 1856, he started working as a draftsman for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. His drawings appeared for the first time in Harper's Weekly on March 19, 1859, when he illustrated a report exposing police corruption.
In February 1860, he went to England for the New York Illustrated News to depict one of the major sporting events of the era, the prize fight between the American John C. Heenan and the English Thomas Sayers sponsored by George Wilkes, publisher of Wilkes' Spirit of the Times. A few months later, as Artist for The Illustrated London News, he joined Garibaldi in Italy. Nast's cartoons and articles about the Garibaldi military campaign to unify Italy captured the popular imagination in the U.S. In February 1861, he arrived back in New York. In September of that year, he married Sarah Edwards, whom he had met two years earlier.
A recurring theme in Nast's cartoons is racism and anti-Catholicism. Nast was baptized a Catholic at the Sankt Maria Catholic Church in Landau, and for a time received Catholic education in New York City. When Nast converted to Protestantism remains unclear, but his conversion was likely formalized upon his marriage in 1861. (The family were practicing Episcopalians at St. Peter's in Morristown). Nast considered the Catholic Church to be a threat to American values. According to his biographer, Fiona Deans Halloran, Nast was "intensely opposed to the encroachment of Catholic ideas into public education". When Tammany Hall proposed a new tax to support parochial Catholic schools, he was outraged. His Savage 1871 cartoon "The American River Ganges", depicts Catholic bishops, guided by Rome, as crocodiles moving in to attack American school children as Irish politicians prevent their escape. He portrayed public support for religious education as a threat to democratic government. The authoritarian papacy in Rome, ignorant Irish Americans, and corrupt politicians at Tammany Hall figured prominently in his work. Nast favored nonsectarian public education that mitigated differences of religion and ethnicity. However, in 1871 Nast and Harper's Weekly supported the Republican-dominated board of education in Long Island in requiring students to hear passages from the King James Bible, and his educational cartoons sought to raise anti-Catholic and anti-Irish fervor among Republicans and independents.
He left the New York Illustrated News to work again, briefly, for Frank Leslie's Illustrated News. In 1862, he became a staff Illustrator for Harper's Weekly. In his first years with Harper's, Nast became known especially for compositions that appealed to the sentiment of the viewer. An Example is "Christmas Eve" (1862), in which a wreath frames a scene of a soldier's praying wife and sleeping children at home; a second wreath frames the soldier seated by a campfire, gazing longingly at small pictures of his loved ones. One of his most celebrated cartoons was "Compromise with the South" (1864), directed against those in the North who opposed the prosecution of the American Civil War. He was known for drawing battlefields in border and southern states. These attracted great attention, and Nast was called by President Abraham Lincoln "our best recruiting sergeant".
In 1863, he witnessed the New York City draft riots in which a mob composed mainly of Irish immigrants burned the Colored Orphan Asylum to the ground. His experiences may explain his sympathy for black Americans and his "antipathy to what he perceived as the brutish, uncontrollable Irish thug".
Harper's Weekly, and Nast, played an important role in the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1864, and Ulysses S. Grant in 1868 and 1872. In September 1864, when Lincoln was running for re-election against Democratic candidate George B. McClellan, who positioned himself as the "peace candidate", Harper's Weekly published Nast's cartoon "Compromise with the South - Dedicated to the Chicago Convention", which criticized McClellan's peace platform as pro-South. Millions of copies were made and distributed nationwide, and Nast was later credited with aiding Lincoln's campaign in a critical moment. Nast played important role during the presidential election in 1868, and Ulysses S. Grant attributed his victory to "the sword of Sheridan and the pencil of Thomas Nast." In the 1872 presidential campaign, Nast's ridicule of Horace Greeley's candidacy was especially merciless. After Grant's victory in 1872, Mark Twain wrote the Artist a letter saying: "Nast, you more than any other man have won a prodigious victory for Grant—I mean, rather, for Civilization and Progress." Nast became a close friend of President Grant and the two families shared regular dinners until Grant's death in 1885.
In the early part of his career, Nast used a brush and ink wash technique to draw tonal renderings onto the wood blocks that would be carved into printing blocks by staff engravers. The bold cross-hatching that characterized Nast's mature style resulted from a change in his method that began with a cartoon of June 26, 1869, which Nast drew onto the wood block using a pencil, so that the engraver was guided by Nast's linework. This change of style was influenced by the work of the English Illustrator John Tenniel.
Nast's drawings were instrumental in the downfall of Boss Tweed, the powerful Tammany Hall leader. As commissioner of public works for New York City, Tweed led a ring that by 1870 had gained total control of the city's government, and controlled "a working majority in the State Legislature". Tweed and his associates—Peter Barr Sweeny (park commissioner), Richard B. Connolly (controller of public expenditures), and Mayor A. Oakey Hall—defrauded the city of many millions of dollars by grossly inflating expenses paid to contractors connected to the Ring. Nast, whose cartoons attacking Tammany corruption had appeared occasionally since 1867, intensified his focus on the four principal players in 1870 and especially in 1871.
Tweed so feared Nast's campaign that he sent an emissary to offer the Artist a bribe of $100,000, which was represented as a gift from a group of wealthy benefactors to enable Nast to study art in Europe. Feigning interest, Nast negotiated for more before finally refusing an offer of $500,000 with the words, "Well, I don't think I'll do it. I made up my mind not long ago to put some of those fellows behind the bars". Nast pressed his attack in the pages of Harper's, and the Ring was removed from power in the election of November 7, 1871. Tweed was arrested in 1873 and convicted of fraud. When Tweed attempted to escape justice in December 1875 by fleeing to Cuba and from there to Spain, officials in Vigo were able to identify the fugitive by using one of Nast's cartoons.
Nast and his wife moved to Morristown, New Jersey in 1872 and there they raised a family that eventually numbered five children. In 1873, Nast toured the United States as a lecturer and a sketch-artist. His activity on the lecture circuit made him wealthy. Nast was for many years a staunch Republican. Nast opposed inflation of the currency, notably with his famous rag-baby cartoons, and he played an important part in securing Rutherford B. Hayes’ presidential election in 1876. Hayes later remarked that Nast was "the most powerful, single-handed aid [he] had", but Nast quickly became disillusioned with President Hayes, whose policy of Southern pacification he opposed.
Between 1877 and 1884, Nast's work appeared only sporadically in Harper's, which began publishing the milder political cartoons of william Allen Rogers. Although his sphere of influence was diminishing, from this period date dozens of his pro-Chinese immigration drawings, often implicating the Irish as instigators. Nast blamed U.S. Senator James G. Blaine (R-Maine) for his support of the Chinese Exclusion Act and depicted Blaine with the same zeal used against Tweed. Nast was one of the few editorial artists who took up for the cause of the Chinese in America.
Nast lost most of his fortune in 1884 after investing in a banking and brokerage firm operated by the swindler Ferdinand Ward. In need of income, Nast returned to the lecture circuit in 1884 and 1887. Although these tours were successful, they were less remunerative than the lecture series of 1873.
Nast's tenure at Harper's Weekly ended with his Christmas illustration of December 1886. It was said by the Journalist Henry Watterson that "in quitting Harper's Weekly, Nast lost his forum: in losing him, Harper's Weekly lost its political importance." Fiona Deans Halloran says "the former is true to a certain extent, the latter unlikely."
In 1890, Nast published Thomas Nast's Christmas Drawings for the Human Race. He contributed cartoons in various publications, notably the Illustrated American, but was unable to regain his earlier popularity. His mode of cartooning had come to be seen as outdated, and a more relaxed style exemplified by the work of Joseph Keppler was in vogue. Health problems, which included pain in his hands which had troubled him since the 1870s, affected his ability to work.
In 1892, he took control of a failing magazine, the New York Gazette, and renamed it Nast's Weekly. Now returned to the Republican fold, Nast used the Weekly as a vehicle for his cartoons supporting Benjamin Harrison for President. The magazine had little impact and ceased publication seven months after it began, shortly after Harrison's defeat.
The failure of Nast's Weekly left Nast with few financial resources. He received a few commissions for oil paintings and drew book illustrations. In 1902, he applied for a job in the State Department, hoping to secure a consular position in western Europe. Although no such position was available, President Theodore Roosevelt was an admirer of the Artist and offered him an appointment as the United States' Consul General to Guayaquil, Ecuador in South America. Nast accepted the position and traveled to Ecuador on July 1, 1902. During a subsequent yellow fever outbreak, Nast remained on the job, helping numerous diplomatic missions and businesses escape the contagion. He contracted the disease and died on December 7 of that year. His body was returned to the United States, where he was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City.
The Thomas Nast Award has been presented each year since 1968 by the Overseas Press Club to an editorial Cartoonist for the "best cartoons on international affairs." Past winners include Signe Wilkinson, Kevin (KAL) Kallaugher, Mike Peters, Clay Bennett, Mike Luckovich, Tom Toles, Herbert Block, Tony Auth, Jeff MacNelly, Dick Locher, Jim Morin, Warren King, Tom Darcy, Don Wright and Patrick Chappatte.
The Thomas Nast Prize for editorial cartooning has been awarded by the Thomas Nast Foundation (located in Nast's birthplace of Landau, Germany) since 1978. The prize is awarded periodically to one German Cartoonist and one North American Cartoonist. Winners receive 1,300 Euros, a trip to Landau, and the Thomas Nast medal. The American advisory committee includes Nast's descendent Thomas Nast III of Fort Worth, Texas. Past winners of the Thomas Nast Prize include Jeff MacNelly, Jim Borgman, Paul Szep, Pat Oliphant, David Levine, Jim Morin, and Tony Auth.
In December 2011, a proposal to include Nast in the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2012 caused controversy. The Wall Street Journal reported that because of his stereotypical cartoons of the Irish, a number of objections were raised about Nast's work. For Example, "The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things" portrays an Irishman as being sub-human, drunk, and violent.
Despite Nast's championing of minorities, Morton Keller writes that later in his career "racist stereotypy of blacks began to appear: comparable to those of the Irish—though in contrast with the presumably more highly civilized Chinese."