Tuesday, July 7, 2009

In Nast We…Trust? A hidden gem in the July 15 Illustration Art Auction

July 7, 2009
Posted by John Dale

Across the wide expanse of American history, there are many newsmakers (and many more behind-the-scenes toilers!) who have influenced its course, but only a relative handful –a few hundred, no more than a thousand – that have become so celebrated that they land in the pages of the average eighth-grade history textbook. Most of these names fall into well-defined classes: the pioneer, the president, the symbol of the times.

A few idiosyncratic folks, however, forge their own paths; the name that stuck out to me most as I sat in Mrs. Schwering’s class was Thomas Nast, the caricaturist popularly known as the creator of the modern political cartoon (Let’s not forget he also gave us the modern image of Santa Claus! – Noah).

In that sense Nast, too, was a pioneer; while he certainly was not the first political cartoonist (if you disagree, Benjamin Franklin’s JOIN, OR DIE snake and Gilbert Stuart’s Gerrymander would like to have a word with you), he was notable for his long-range campaigning and consistency, using his cartoons in Harper’s Weekly to hammer repeatedly at foes.

His most famous target was “Boss” Tweed, the infamously corrupt leader of New York’s Tammany Hall political machine and himself a symbol of the Gilded Age. Tweed’s displeasure with Nast has grown to legendary proportions, including the (apocryphal?) line about how voters might not be able to read, but they couldn’t help seeing Nast’s “pictures” in the paper – a strange way of putting it since many of Nast’s early cartoons were heavy on text as well as their more famous imagery.

“Boss” Tweed was convicted and died in prison, but Nast was not done crusading. Even after Nast and Harper’s Weekly parted ways – a split that was mutually disastrous – Nast continued to craft his cartoons, which gradually became simpler and more closely resembled the political cartoon as it appears today.

In style if not in content, his cartoon in our July 15 Illustration Art Auction, The Fat and the Lean Issue, could have been created today: the corpulent and coin-headed effigy of the pig iron trust holds a bar of his own manufacture, which weighs down on a pick-toting man (who looks suspiciously like a Rough Rider-era Theodore Roosevelt) already “shouldering” a war tax. In true political cartooning fashion, the only subtlety in this work is the delicately sketched background, with its smokestacks and house-on-the-hill.

Small but powerful, important but surprisingly affordable (with an opening bid of $400), this cartoon represents a slice of journalism history that may be more than a century old but hardly seems dated.

-John Dale

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