The Life And Death Of Thomas Nast

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Thomas Nast loved everything in nature, often staying up late at night to watch the stars and explain astronomy to his children. A story was told about the time he was sitting with a group before an open fire at The Players one cold wintry day and asked his friends if they would like to go out with him to see a great sight. Only one hardy soul cared to brave the weather. They had walked a few blocks when my grandfather stopped before a large plate-glass window covered with frost crystals. This was the great sight! His friend at first thought it was a joke but was soon convinced that Pop Tom was deadly serious; and he had to admit it was beautiful.

In his younger days Thomas Nast had enjoyed walking and horseback riding, although his riding days were over when I knew him. He loved animals, particularly cats, greyhounds, pugs, and terriers, as evidenced by their prominence in his drawings. When one of his dogs was poisoned, he was so distressed that he could not eat.

My memories of my grandmother, Sarah Nast, during these days are equally vivid. I recall her as a lovely, even-tempered lady who maintained her patrician bearing as she went quietly about her work presiding over the servantless Nast household. I never heard her speak a complaining or cross word, even during the later years when she was to make a home for me after my mother’s death. I was fourteen years old at that time, and my grandmother was in her middle seventies. She saw me through a very trying period until I was ready to go away to college. I still remember the times when we were invited to dine with my Uncle Cyril and his wife, who lived nearby. I was a prodigious milk drinker; and in order to make sure that I enjoyed my daily ration, my grandmother would, to my embarrassment, carry with her a large pitcher of milk, holding it before her in order not to spill any as we walked along the city street together. Sarah Nast died at the age of ninety-two, outliving her husband by thirty years.

Would that I had asked my grandmother the many questions about my grandfather to which I would now like to have the answers. But as Catherine Drinker Bowen wrote in her delightful Family Portrait , one seldom begins to care about one’s ancestors until reaching the age of fifty.

What bothered my grandfather most as the century came to a close was that he was heavily in debt. But he was not one to complain, even though he sometimes had to rely upon his talents to pay his doctor, dentist, and lawyer, by painting their portraits for them. I was told that he once paid a tax collector in this manner, although how the collector settled with the taxing authority is not quite clear.

This lack of money was my grandfather’s constant problem when, in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt succeeded to the Presidency of the United States. Roosevelt, himself a fighter for the things in which he believed, had long admired a similar spirit in Thomas Nast. So, wishing to do something to help him in his adversity, the President offered him an appointment as consul general in Ecuador. The offer was made in a letter from Secretary of State John Hay, advising that unfortunately this was the only post available at the time. As Hay wrote : The President would like to put it at your disposition, but if you think it too far away and too little amusing to a man with the soul of an artist, please say so frankly, and he will keep you in mind if anything better should turn up: but it is heartbreaking business waiting for vacancies. Our service is so edifying and preservative that few die and nobody resigns.

 
 
 

It was not an assignment that appealed to my grandfather, involving as it did business duties for which he was not at all qualified. But as he was desperately in need of funds, the four-thousand-dollar-a-year stipend seemed a godsend to the artist, who in his heyday had earned that much in a single month. He gratefully accepted the offer. It was a case of any port in a storm.

At the time he was notified of his appointment, Thomas Nast was working on a painting of the defeated General Robert E. Lee as he awaited the arrival of General Grant at Appomattox Court House. It was to be called The Hour of Surrender . The painting was never finished, but a photograph was taken of the artist as he stood before his canvas, palette in hand. No doubt the disappointments experienced in later life had better enabled Thomas Nast to understand the anguish suffered by the great southern leader. Looking at the photograph, one wonders who looks the sadder, the artist or the General. It was the hour of surrender for both.

When the time drew near for his departure for Ecuador, the consul-to-be got off one of his clever sketches advising Secretary Hay that he was ready to leave.

Guayaquil, the principal port in Ecuador, where the consulate was located, had recently been ravaged by fire, and the climate would have been difficult for a much younger man to endure. Nast was sixty-one years old at the time. In addition, sanitary conditions were poor and yellow fever was prevalent. When a friend asked my grandfather why he was going to such a forsaken spot, he replied that he wanted to learn how to pronounce the name of the place.