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Thomas Nast: the Cartoonist that Went Against Tammany Hall

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When discussing artists in this class, one artist stood out above the rest, with the amount of influence and impact, he had on the world through his art. Thomas Nast influenced the world through his work by making issues that people were aware of accessible. He realized that while people couldn’t read, they could look at cartoons. His influence in politics is unmatched by any artist of his generation or any generation that succeeded his. In this essay I will be discussing his art, his politics, and some of his personal history. 

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Thomas Nast was born in Landau, Germany, on September 26, 1840 to Appolonia and Joseph Thomas Nast. His father was a member of the Bavarian 9th Regiment band. While still in the army his father sent Thomas, his mother, and Thomas’ sister to the United States in 1846. This due to the fact that Joseph was uncomfortable with the political climate of Germany at the time, in 1850 he would move to the United States after finishing his enlistment. In 1854 Thomas became a student of Theodore Kaufmann, another German-born artist. At the age of 15 began to work for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper as a reportorial artist, in 1859 he began working for the New York Illustrated News. While employed by them he was sent to cover a major prizefight in England, while abroad he was also sent to cover a military campaign in Sicily. In 1862 he began working for Harper’s Weekly, it was in this position where he would gain most of his fame. 

While in this position he covered the American Civil War. His art covering the war brought him instant fame and recognition throughout the country. Years after the war ended, he started to bring attention to the corruption that was prevalent among the Democrats at Tammany Hall. For years he drew political cartoons depicting the leader of the Democrats, William Tweed, as a corrupt sleazy politician. His art was eventually used to identify Tweed when he tried escaping his jailing by going to Spain. Over the years as the country changed Nast lost much of his influence as an artist and in 1902, he became consul general to Ecuador for Theodore Roosevelt. It was in that same year where he would die of yellow fever. Thomas Nast while known known primarily from his political cartoons, he also created works of art that have become a part of society’s collective conscious. To start I want to expand on the political aspect that I only alluded to in the paragraph above. 

Like I mentioned above during the Civil War he worked for Harper’s Weekly covering the war. One of his pieces called “Compromise with the South,” became an instrument for the reelection campaign of Abraham Lincoln. This piece was later credited with helping Lincoln in an invaluable time, as it wasn’t expected that he would receive reelection. Aside from Lincoln, Nast played a part in the election of Ulysses S. Grant who attributed his victory in part to,” the pencil of Thomas Nast.’ His supporting of presidential candidates was not all of his foray into the political world as I stated above. Some of his most well-known works came from the time he took on the corrupt Tammany Hall and William Tweed. His work was instrumental in bringing attention to the corruption as while people may not be able to read, they would be able to look at his cartoons. Nast was enough of a thorn in Tweed’s side that he was offered a bribe in exchange for not creating anymore cartoons, he refused the bribe. Eventually Tweed would be sentenced to jail for fraud and like I said above he escaped and went to Spain. Nast’s art would play a part in Tweed’s apprehension as someone recognized him from his depiction in the cartoons. Aside from his political cartoons Nast has been remembered for creating some of the most recognizable symbols in the world today. For example, Nast is credited with creating the elephant symbol of the Republican Party, however contrary to popular belief, he didn’t create the Democratic donkey. Quite possibly his biggest contribution to the collective conscious is his depiction of Santa Claus. While Santa Claus had been depicted in different ways prior to Nast, he created the modern version of Santa.

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