Childhood & Early Life
Thomas Nast was born on September 27, 1840, in Landau, Bavarian Rheinpfalz, Germany to Appolonia and Joseph Thomas Nast. He was the couple’s last child and had one surviving sibling. His father worked as a trombonist in the Bavarian 9th regiment band.
The Nast family moved to the United States when Thomas was a little boy. He received his primary education in New York City. He did not perform well in studies but displayed an early aptitude for sketching and drawing.
Having realized early on that his true calling was to become an artist, he studied for about a year with Alfred Fredericks and Theodore Kaufmann, and then at the school of the National Academy of Design in the mid-1850s. However, he had to drop out of the academy before completing his studies as his family could no longer afford the fees.
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Thomas Nast started working as a draftsman for ‘Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper’ in 1856. Eventually, he started contributing cartoons to publications and he illustrated a report exposing police corruption in ‘Harper's Weekly’ on March 19, 1859, marking the first time his drawings appeared in a newspaper.
He travelled to England in 1860 to draw sketches for the ‘New York Illustrated News’ depicting one of the major sporting events of the era, the prize fight between the American John C. Heenan and the English Thomas Sayers.
After some time he went to Italy as an artist for ‘The Illustrated London News’. He created several drawings about the Garibaldi military campaign to unify Italy which caught the attention of the American citizens. He returned to New York in September 1861.
In 1862, he joined the ‘Harper’s Weekly’ as a staff illustrator. Within a year of working there, he became popular with the readers because of his compositions that appealed to the emotions of the common man.
He gained much fame as a political cartoonist during the period of the American Civil War, and received appreciation from President Abraham Lincoln for encouraging young men to enlist in the army through his poignant images.
Through his cartoons he opposed the Reconstruction policy of President Andrew Johnson, supported American Indians and Chinese Americans, advocated the abolition of slavery, opposed racial segregation, and deplored the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. As a political cartoonist he became an immensely popular figure in American journalism.
During the 1860s, the New York City politics was dominated by a politician called William Tweed. By 1870, Tweed had gained total control of the city's government and was engaged in rampant political corruption. Tweed, along with his associates had defrauded the city of millions of dollars of the taxpayers’ hard-earned money.
Frustrated by these incidents of unchecked political corruption, he started drawing sketches depicting the political corruption of Tweed and his associates in the late 1860s. As their corruption intensified over the years, so did Nast’s determination to expose their wrong doings.
By 1870 Nast had intensified his focus on Tweed and his associates. One of the most significant cartoons that made the lawmakers take the corruption seriously—The Tammany Tiger Loose—"What are you going to do about it?"—was published in November 1871 in ‘Harper’s Weekly’.
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As Nast started publishing more cartoons exposing Tweed’s misdeeds, the politician became concerned and even tried to bribe Nast by offering him $100,000. Nast pretended to be interested and negotiated until Tweed’s men offered him $500,000. Now armed with enough proof to prove Tweed’s guilt, Nast was able to bring down Tweed from power in the next election. Eventually Tweed was arrested in 1873 and convicted of fraud.
Tweed’s downfall made Nast a much renowned figure. Throughout 1873, he toured the United States as a lecturer and a sketch-artist, and earned even more success and fame. He also played a major role in securing Rutherford B. Hayes’ presidential election in 1876.
The Weekly’s publisher Fletcher Harper died in 1877. Harper had always strongly supported Nast and following his death, Nast began having frequent disagreements with the publication’s editors. The relationship between Nast and the editors worsened over the 1880s and Nast left the publication in 1886.
Nast’s career floundered after he left The Weekly and within years he found himself in a dire financial situation. President Theodore Roosevelt, who was an admirer of the artist, offered him an appointment as the United States' Consul General to Guayaquil, Ecuador in South America, which Nast accepted in July 1902.
Personal Life & Legacy
Thomas Nast married Sarah Edwards in September 1861. The couple had five children.
While posted in Ecuador, Thomas Nast contracted yellow fever during an outbreak of the disease and died on December 7, 1902. His body was returned to the United States, where he was interred in the Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York.
The Thomas Nast Award was created by the Overseas Press Club in his honor and has been presented each year since 1968 to an editorial cartoonist for the "best cartoons on international affairs”.