Thomas Nast

Can the Law Reach Him?-The Dwarf and the Giant Thief

Thomas Nast
Engraving
Harper’s Weekly
January 6, 1872

During the early 1870s, William “Boss” Tweed often appeared to the public as if he were above the law.  Nast depicts the law as the average-sized police officer able to apprehend lowly “dwarf” criminal but not Tweed, the “giant thief” who is untouchable by the law.

The Drummer Boy of Our Regiment 

Thomas Nast
Artist’s proof
Published in Harper’s Weekly
December 19, 1863
Photograph by Stan Freeny

Thomas Nast depicts the life of a young drummer boy during the Civil War in eight vignettes. This propaganda image was drawn to set parents fears at ease and to encourage them to send their young boys to war to fight for the Union cause. In the center left, the boy leaves the family home wiping his tears as his mother and grandmother weep. In the scene to the right, the drummer boy returns from war fearless and proud. The surrounding vignettes show how the boy will be taken care of, stay fed and clean in camp, how he will write home and finally how he will bravely lead the troops into battle.

Mother And Child​

Thomas Nast
Pencil on Paper
1862
Photograph by Stan Freeny

​In 1862 Thomas Nast drew this touching picture of his wife Sarah, or Sallie as he called her, and their first born child Julia. Nast was proud of his new family. Thomas and Sallie were  married in September of 1861 and their daughter Julia was born the following July.

Nast had recently returned from Europe in February 1861 at the young age of 20. He had followed Giuseppe Garibaldi’s campaign to unify Southern Italy. While in Italy, and after while touring Europe, he studied some of the old masters, including Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520) and others who painted versions of the Madonna and Child. Nast was inspired by these artists of past and their influence is seen in this “modern” 19th century take of Mother and Child.

Reveille in Camp – 5 A.M.

Thomas Nast
Engraving
Harper’s Weekly
July 11, 1863

The drummer boys of a Union Camp, during the Civil War, play their drums to awaken the Northern troops to the military beats. Thomas Nast drew this image to depict military life in camp. Nast liked to draw drummer boys, because it showed bravery at such a young age. Nast felt that this would stir emotions and support for the Union Army. The artist would create pictures from the battlefield, from camp as well as the families back home during the War.

A Gallant Color-Bearer

A Gallant Color-Bearer
Thomas Nast
Engraving
Harper’s Weekly
September 20, 1862, Cover

A Gallant Color-Bearer is one of Thomas Nast’s first images for Harper’s Weekly during the Civil War. Many of the artist’s drawings during the war were patriotic images intended to stir emotions to support the Union cause. The below is an article from the same issue of Harper’s Weekly about the inspiration for Nast’s cover image.

“H. Alexander, color-bearer of the 10th New York Regiment deserves to be placed high upon the roll of our heroes.  He received 3 terrible wounds in a recent engagement, but clung to his colors with tenacious grasp. While being taken into hospital he became inservicable, and an attempt was made to take the flag away, but his unconcious hand held it more powerfully; even then his ruling passion was strong. Such men in life and death are glorious examples. Our picture is a just homage to distinguished gallantry.”

Santa Claus’s Route

Santa Claus’s Route
Thomas Nast
Appeared in Harper’s Weekly
December 19, 1885

Thomas Nast was the first to “discover” that Santa Claus lived and worked in the North Pole. It made logistical sense for the workshop and home of Santa to be in the North Pole since it was a central location where Santa was relatively the same distance from all children in the Northern Hemisphere. The North Pole was also a remote location where Santa could not be spied on by curious children. Lastly, the North Pole was a cold and snowy setting which fit in with Santa and Mrs. Claus’s personae. In this drawing the children, Thomas Nast’s youngest son and daughter, Cyril and Mabel, plot Santa’s route from the North Pole to their house just across Macculloch Avenue.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and all through the House Not a Creature was Stirring, Not Even a Mouse

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, and all through the House Not a Creature was Stirring, Not Even a Mouse
Thomas Nast
Harper’s Weekly
December 25, 1886

Thomas Nast takes a literal spin to Clement Moore’s Christmas poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas and depicts sleeping mice on the mantle to describe the opening lines of the classic Christmas poem. Above the mantle is one of Nast’s images of Santa Claus and on the mantle next to the mice is a copy of a Christmas Sketches book.

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas: A Chance to Test Santa Claus’s Generosity

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas: A Chance to Test Santa Claus’s Generosity
Thomas Nast
Engraving
Harper’s Weekly
December 30, 1876

Thomas Nast’s gentle humor comes through in this image in which a child tests Santa Claus’s generosity by hanging an extra-large stocking, labeled Mother, from the mantle. Nast often used his home,Villa Fontana, in Morristown, New Jersey as a setting for his Christmas images. Even in some of the engravings that do not feature Santa Claus as the main character, the artist often draws the jolly old elf in the background, as he does on the fire screen here.

Merry Old Santa Claus

Merry Old Santa Claus
Thomas Nast
Artist’s Proof
Appeared in Harper’s Weekly
January 1, 1881

Of all the thousands of drawings Nast rendered, Merry Old Santa Claus was the single image he told his family he wanted to be remembered for. The artist succeeded, as this image is the icon of American Christmas.

Merry Old Santa Claus is actually a complex political image, rather than a sugary holiday image. Santa Claus holds an armful of toys, each carefully selected by Nast for their symbolism. The doll holds her arms outstretched in a begging gesture. The wooden pull horse invokes the legend of trickery of the Trojan horse. Between the horse and doll is a model tin kitchen, a popular Victorian toy, representing hearth and home. The sand pail, growing in popularity in the 1880s as Americans discovered seashore vacations, represents the adage of an ostrich burying its head in the sand. Nast is portraying more than the festive gifts of the holiday season.

Three additional objects carried by Santa Claus in this image reveal the true meaning of the illustration. The pocket watch hanging from Santa’s finger indicates a few minutes before midnight. Rather than signifying the approaching moment when Santa Claus will travel across the night sky delivering gifts, the watch shows that at midnight on New Year’s Eve all Congressional legislation not passed will expire without action. Over Santa’s arm hangs an officer’s dress sword and on his back, rather than a sack of toys, is an enlisted soldier’s knapsack. These three elements are the key and tie the image together.

At the time Nast created Merry Old Santa Claus, Congress was debating a pay increase for the United States military. He was staunchly pro-military and believed that for their risk and heroism, soldiers and sailors were due just wages. Nast’s subtext in this holiday icon is “If Santa can bring gifts to our soldiers and sailors, why can’t Congress provide a decent living wage?”