Symbolism

Symbolism and stereotypes are closely related but also completely different. Nast used symbols extensively in his artistic commentary.  Donald Dewey referred to symbols as an artists’ shorthand.

He writes, “symbols were an economic language in a frontier society where literacy wasn’t always available currency. Whether borrowed from nature, religion or mythology, they went a long way toward simplifying polemics through an appeal to a higher order “(Dewey 11). No one used symbols more effectively than Thomas Nast.

Indeed, prolific use of symbols can be viewed as a method of stereotyping an individual, group, or race by way of reduction their essence to a single image or metaphor. In Nast’s era, creating a symbol to represent a larger whole or entity, formed from a necessity of time.  Hand drawn images needed to be meticulously carved, yet rendered quickly for delivery to the printing press. Nast often contributed several drawings to a single weekly issue. He needed to have stock images that he could quickly reproduce and incorporate into his scenes.

Nast consistently repeated symbols for practical purposes. This can be interpreted as a means to create and promote a stereotype. The use of symbols often reduces or dehumanizes individuals. In modern political cartoons, Garry Trudeau, creator of Doonsebury, chose to depict U.S. President George W. Bush as a talking hat, and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger as a strongman’s fist. Once adopted, political artists like Trudeau rarely deviate from these symbolic devices once they are established.

Nast followed the lead of British cartoonists, especially John Tenniel, artist for Punch magazine, who used female goddesses to personify of governments or countries. Britannia, Columbia, Hibernia were frequent substitutes for England, America and Ireland, respectively. They almost always appear as positive, regal actors, sometimes sympathetically as victims. While Nast did not invent Uncle Sam, he employed the fictional figure as his favorite, and occasionally psychologically tortured symbol of the American government (whereas Columbia and her sisters Liberty and Justice) almost always stoically represented American values.

Nast created “John Chinaman,” or “John Confucius” as his symbol for the Chinese nation or Chinese government. When they appear in Nast cartoons, they should be assessed in the same light as Columbia, or Uncle Sam. Calling someone a “Chinaman” today is a negative term, but it was not used negatively in Nast’s cartoons. His “John Chinaman,” alone or as part of a diplomatic delegation, are drawn in their native dress and usually with a cap. Nast did not exaggerate the features of “John Chinaman” and he typically imbues him with wisdom and dignity.  Oftentimes, Nast includes “John” or his Chinese representatives with references to their ancient culture. Nast often includes them as a foil against western representations of civilizations. Although historian John Kuo Wei Tchen has concerns with some of Nast’s depictions, he concedes Nast’s efforts to defend the Chinese and calls the “John Confucius” character “unambiguously noble” (203).

Though animal symbolism could be used to dehumanize a subject, Nast frequently used animals in striking manner.

The Tammany Tiger Loose
Tammany Tiger Loose November 11, 1871, Harper’s Weekly. One of the rare images of Columbia as a victim, being torn to shreds by the corrupt Tammany Tiger, as Boss Tweed and his Ring look on. Source: The Ohio State University

Nast’s Tammany tiger represented a corrupt political machine, was nevertheless a magnificent symbol to capture the hunger and ruthlessness of William M. Tweed. In his early days as chief of the Sixth Ward Fire Department, Tweed selected the tiger as the department’s symbol. Nast capitalized upon the symbol and the tiger came to life. As a symbol for Tammany Hall, Nast launched Tweed’s tiger to eviscerate the Democratic boss.  In Nast’s Tweed series, the Tammany tiger embodies bottomless hunger and greed and an at-all-costs-protection of Tweed’s interests through violent enforcement. In 1871, Nast released The Tammany Tiger Loose.  It is an effective and emotional use of symbols.  In Colonial times, Benjamin Franklin, credited as America’s first political cartoonist, frequently used the snake to represent a strong and defiant United States.

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