Friday, December 19, 2014

Arty Farty Friday ~ The Santa Side of Thomas Nast

I can't let this Arty Farty Friday - last one before Christmas - go by without taking a look at 19th century illustrator and cartoonist Thomas Nast. As well as being one of the USA's first influential (and controversial) political cartoonists he was the true originator of the image of Santa Claus we've grown used to seeing all our lives. Some people contend that Haddon Sundblom should be credited with the creation of today's best-known Santa image. His version is the one Coca Cola still uses. Sundblom was born more than 50 years after Nast though - he was not the originator, but was clearly inspired by Nast's Christmas illustrations.

Thomas Nast was born in Landau, Germany, on
27 September 1840, relocated to New York with his family six yeas later. His natural talent for drawing showed up early, by age 16 he was a draftsman for The Illustrated Newspaper. Three years later his work appeared in Harper's Weekly where he illustrated a report exposing police corruption. He soon became famous for cartoons castigating dishonest politicians, the Klu Klux Klan, and anarchists, while supporting the rights of Native Americans, African Americans, and conservation of wildlife.

Another of Nast's creations was the Democrat donkey, it appeared in an 1870 Harper's Weekly cartoon and was intended to represent an anti-war faction with whom he disagreed. The donkey symbol caught the public's imagination so the cartoonist continued using it to indicate some Democratic editors and newspapers.

His Christmas-time illustrations of Santa Claus, inspired by Clement Moore's well-known poem, The Night Before Christmas, must have provided Nast with a much-needed breather from constant political angst! His love for his wife and family show through in his Christmas drawings, his children appear in some of them, and settings reflect Nast's home in Morristown, New Jersey. It is thought that tales of St. Nicholas heard in Germany as a child also inspired his perception of Santa Claus, a perception that changed and developed as time passed. One of his early drawings of Santa depicted a small, almost elfin, character dressed in brown; another, from Civil War days is below. (Click on any image for a larger, clearer view.)

Thomas Nast: born in Landau, Germany on 27 September 1840. Chart set for 12 noon as no time of birth is known.

With Sun, Mercury, Venus (art) and very possibly Moon in Venus-ruled Libra; also Neptune in socially conscious Aquarius harmoniously trining the planets in Libra, it's no surprise to find a socially conscious artist emerge! Where's his Santa-vibe though? Is it quirky Uranus in dreamy Pisces in trine to expansive, generous Jupiter in secretive Scorpio? I think so! Santa can be the world's best kept secret.

A few more examples of Thomas Nast's Santa side:

He illustrated books published by McLoughlin Brothers such as A Visit From St. Nicholas, Santa Claus and His Works, and provided Harper's Weekly with annual Christmas drawings until 1886. In 1889 his popular Christmas drawings from Harper's were published in a book: Christmas Drawings for the Human Race.


mike said...

Santa Claus is another caricature that has has a surreptitious past. I essentially agree with your attributing the visual character to Nast, the first verbal definition that Nast utilized was from Clement Clarke Moore's "'Twas the Night Before Christmas". An engraving by J.W. Evans was used to embellish Moore's poem and offered one of the first depictions, though not the contemporary.

Interesting to note that Nast's first depictions were political in nature. The "Harper's Weekly" cartoon that you provide has some darkness:

"Perhaps most interesting about this print is the special gift in Santa's hand. Santa is holding a dancing puppet of none-other-than Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America. The likeness to Jefferson Davis is unmistakable. Even more interesting, Davis appears to have the string tied around his neck, so Santa appears to by Lynching Jefferson Davis! This is a classic Thomas Nast illustration. This is Nast's first published picture of Santa Claus, and we can see many of our present images of Santa demonstrated in this Civil War illustration."

I've read a number of accounts about the origins of the Christmas holiday. Oddly, the birth of Jesus is the most refutable of our modern provisa and there is scant evidence to support that this person even existed, yet alone was born on this day. Here's an interesting explanation:

"Have a Merry, Trippy Christmas
Is Santa a reflection of psychedelic shamanism?"

Twilight said...

mike ~ Hmmm - yes - it's hard to pick out the detail in Nast's Santa & Civil War cartoon, but it was, as you describe, and a pretty dark offering.
It was something akin, I suppose, to that awful film of Seth Rogen's that has stirred up much dissent recently, not about content (which was my objection) but about its release cancellation due to hackers/Sony...etc.
and "freedom of." whatever.

Interesting ideas in the article you linked (thanks). Trying to find reasons for Christmas is a bit like conspiracy theorists - if you don't like the commonly accepted explanations (of which there are several), make one up using available facts spliced with a bit of fiction of your choice.

I've never thought Christmas was Jesus' birthday, but I do think someone - a wise teacher in the mould of the much later MLK, existed around New Testament times to whom the name Jesus, and all the trappings have been attached. That's my conspiracy theory. It doesn't weaken his message. :-)

mike (again) said...

Seth Rogen's "The Interview"...who ever would have thought this fiasco would be so consuming?! Maybe it's all a publicity stunt...LOL.

You might enjoy this varied-topic's about 45 minutes in length. It aired last night...I almost didn't watch, because Rose's broadcast was delayed due to a Xmas special. I want Friedman for our next POTUS.

Tom Friedman on "Charlie Rose", December 18, 2014:

Twilight said...

mike ~ At least "The Interview" will not clutter up cinema screens at Christmas (muddying the traditional "goodwill" an' all that!)

Thanks for the link - I shall watch the video in the morning.

Twilight said...

mike (again) ~ Impressive guy, Friedman - I agree! He'd never be elected though - speaks far too much common sense.