The Life And Death Of Thomas Nast

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Nast had learned little about finance during his career as an artist, as would soon become apparent. An investment in a silver mine in Colorado proved unprofitable and became a drain on his resources. But in 1883 his financial problems seemed about to be over. His good friend General U. S. Grant had, after retiring from the Presidency, invested all of his savings in a Wall Street firm headed by Ferdinand Ward, a New York investment banker. Grant’s son, who lacked financial experience, was made a junior partner to look after his father’s interest. The venture prospered to such an extent, or so it appeared, that General Grant offered Nast an opportunity to participate, a privilege accorded only to a select few. This seemed the chance to recoup his mining losses, so the artist sold a piece of property and invested the proceeds in the firm of Grant and Ward. The generous dividends that ensued encouraged Nast to take his family abroad for a much needed rest.

It was not long after his return, however, that headlines in his morning paper announced that Grant and Ward had failed. It seemed incredible in view of the optimistic reports and liberal dividends he had been receiving. But the fact was that Ferdinand Ward had proved to be an unscrupulous manipulator who, in order to maintain the fiction of profitability, had been declaring dividends out of capital funds until there was no more capital left.

My grandfather lost everything that he had invested, while General Grant lost even more. Grant had personally guaranteed one of the firm’s notes a few days before the failure was announced and, in order to help pay off the note, had to sell everything he could get his hands on, including military trophies and souvenirs from all over the world. Not until Grant’s memoirs were published posthumously was his family able to pay off all of the General’s debts.

The disenchantment that followed Nast’s first and final experience in Wall Street was revealed in several of his pictures. One, a merciless and funny self-caricature in oil painted eighteen years later, depicts the artist’s complete bewilderment and despair at being duped. (This painting, on loan from the Smithsonian Institution, hung in the White House office of Daniel P. Moynihan during the time he served as a counsellor to President Nixon. It was known among Dr. Moynihan’s colleagues as Nost Contemplating the “Bust” of Ward .)

Relations between Nast and Harper’s did not improve during the Presidential campaign of 1884, when the cartoonist found himself unable to support James G. Blaine, the Republican candidate for the Presidency. For the first time Thomas Nast campaigned for a Democrat, caricaturing Blaine as the “Plumed Knight.” Grover Cleveland, the Democratic candidate whom Nast supported, was elected.

In 1886 came the end of Thomas Nast’s association with Harpers Weekly , a magazine that he had helped make famous and in which he had made his reputation. In the quarter century of the Nast- Harper’s relationship the nation had passed through a turbulent period, and Nast’s drawings in the magazine would provide a vivid pictorial chronicle of those years. But in terminating his connection with Harper’s Nast lost his forum, while at the same time the Weekly lost its political importance.

 

Several years later my grandfather tried starting his own paper, but this venture, too, failed, leaving the artist heavily in debt. Nast consoled himself, however, that he had lost no one’s money but his own. Now came the time when horses and carriages had to be sold, faithful servants dismissed, and a mortgage placed on the house.

It was like manna from heaven, therefore, when in 1889 his old friends at Harper’s proposed that he get together a collection of his Christmas drawings for publication in book form, a very Christmaslike gesture and one that my grandfather gratefully accepted.

Thomas Nast’s book Christmas Drawings for the Human Race was published in time for the 1890 Christmas season. It contained pictures that had appeared in Christmas issues of Harper’s over a period of thirty years as well as some additional drawings made especially for the book. Clement Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” was again the inspiration for many of the new Christmas drawings, and Santa Claus was now depicted as the very embodiment of merriment and good cheer.

It seemed fitting that Thomas Nast’s last assignment for Harper’s should be on a theme transcending the fortunes of politics, thus giving the artist an opportunity to include all humans in his message of Christmas good will, regardless of their race, creed, or political affiliation.

 

My earliest personal memories of my grandfather relate to the many times that I visited the Morristown home in the years just before and after the turn of the century. I was fortunate in being a favorite of his as a boy, no doubt because my mother, Edith Nast, was very close to her father and I was his eldest grandson.