You know his crosshatched images like an old tune for which you cannot remember the words. His symbols for the American political parties and, for that matter, America itself, will stay with us for all time. He is credited with the reelection of presidents and the tumbling-down of one of our biggest political bad eggs. And then there’s our common perception of Santa Claus. All this from one artist?
His name was Thomas Nast.
Nast was born in Germany in 1840, emigrating to the United States when he was six. By the age of fifteen, he was drawing for Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. He became a war correspondent in Italy and then in the United States during the Civil War.
When he was in the field, he sent drawings to Harper’s Weekly, his new employer. The art was transferred by engravers to wood blocks to be printed, appearing on double page spreads twenty inches wide. But when he was in the New York office, he drew backwards directly on the blocks with a soft pencil.
After the war he set his sights on William Tweed of the Tammany Hall political machine. Tweed, a New York state senator who blatently stole from the treasury and gave kickbacks to friends, said, “Stop them pictures. I don’t care what the papers report about me. My constituents can’t read. But (bleep), they can see the pictures.” The mission was successful and Boss Tweed was put out.
Nast continued creating illustrations for Harper’s Weekly through the 1880s, entertaining and persuading the public to take up social causes. When the next generation took over, they disagreed on tactics: Nast preferred to “hit the enemy between the eyes” with his cartoons. So about the time wood block printing was replaced with pen and ink drawings, he parted with the publication that had been his forum for so many years.
A resident of Morristown, N.J., where the largest of his collections is now housed in a museum, Nast became wealthy and then lost most of his money to an investment firm. He needed work at the beginning of the new century, and President Theodore Roosevelt gave him a job as U.S. consul in Ecuador. When he went, he contracted yellow fever, dying in 1902.
His last Santa cartoon was inscribed: “New Life in the Old House. Don’t Know When I’ve Felt So At Home Here.” He gave it to the Roosevelt family in 1901, and it still hangs in the nursery at Sagamore Hill.