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Nast, Thomas (1840-1902)

Illustrator, Journalist

Born in Bavaria in 1840, Nast emigrated to New York City with his mother and sister in 1846 and his father followed them in 1850. Nast’s early artistic influences were historical painter Theodore Kaufmann, with whom he began his first formal study; Alfred Fredericks, whose studio was nearby and who became a mentor to Nash and helped him gain entry to the Academy of Design, as well as Frank Leslie, the publisher of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly Newspaper who hired the sixteen-year old Nast for five dollars a week. At Frank Leslie’s, Nast befriended Pfaffians Sol Eytinge, Richard H. Stoddard, Charles Halpine (Miles O’Reilly), George Arnold, Frank Bellew, and Fitz-James O’Brien (Paine 21-22). He also studied the illustrations in the British magazine Punch; he was particularly interested in the social satire present in John Tenniel’s cartoons.

Recent biographer, Fiona Deans Halloran, writes of his connection to Pfaff's noting that "drinking beers at Pfaff's, Nast socialized with a wide variety of New York's literati. That social world embracced Nast as a sort of pet. From it, he learned about art, writing, reporting, and the connections that underlay business relationships" (40). Thomas Gunn, who was well-connected in the Pfaffian circle, wrote frequently about Nast and kept meticulous records of the evolution of Nast's relationship with Sallie Edwards, who would eventually become his wife (cf. Gunn vol. 11, 105). Scholar Louis Starr Starr writes that in March 1861, Nast, a "familiar face," at Pfaff's Cave, was absent. "The roly-poly fledgling of the New York Illustrated News, Nast was in Washington for Lincoln's inauguration (3). He was also a member of "the artists' contingent of the Bohemian brigade" who gained the "widest renown" and had tangential connections to Pfaff's (Starr 9, 354).

By 1862 Nast realized a long-held dream and joined the artistic staff at Harper’s Weekly where he remained for twenty-five years. Many of his cartoons from this period relate to the Civil War. In addition to contributing caricatures to lesser-known periodicals Phunny Phellow, the Riverside Magazine for Young People, and Mrs. Grundy, Nast also illustrated books like Mary Mapes Dodge’s Hans Brinker: or, the Silver Skates, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit from Saint Nicholas, several of Dickens’ works, and the work of regional humorists like Petroleum V. Nasby. From 1864 to 1884, Nast drew satirical, topical caricatures that commented on political and social events like the "Boss" Tweed-Tammany Hall scandal. Nast is remembered for crafting symbolic political caricatures such as Uncle Sam, Miss Columbia, the Tammany tiger, and mascots for political parties (the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey). He is also credited with popularizing images of Santa Claus. The five children he had with wife Sarah Edwards served as models for Nast’s Christmas pictures. Plagued by debt near the end of his life, Nast accepted the position of U.S. Consul in Guayaquil, Ecuador from President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902. He contracted yellow fever there and died at the age of sixty-two (Piscitelli).