New Nast Chinese image surfaces

Rare Nast watercolor features a possible self-portrait 

Through this website, I received an inquiry from Susan M., who recently acquired a small watercolor image, signed in print script, by T. Nast. Susan had little history on the image. Since “Nast + Chinese” often refers to this site, I was a natural person for her to contact. Nast watercolors are rare.  And this particular subject matter is historic, as it features the artist Thomas Nast in a self-portrait engaging in direct contact with a Chinese tobacconist in New York. Seeing it was a fantastic revelation!

Thomas Nast buys cigar from Chinese Merchant Watercolor of Thomas Nast visiting a Chinese tobacco shop. Source: private collection of Susan M., photo provided by owner

The man on the left with paper tucked under his right arm is most certainly Thomas Nast. At 5’5″ Nast was not a tall man, but when he included himself in his work, he depicted his physique as disproportionately tiny.  This could be a young Nast, without the goatee. He is trying out a new cigar. In New York, the Chinese sold tobacco, specifically cigars, as well as teas and spices. The little man’s posture is erect and brave, with his rotund abdomen jutting out.

A 1959 self-caricature shows the artist without facial hair, and a similar physique:

Self-caricature in a pencil or charcoal wash. 1959. Source: Library of Congress
Thomas Nast self portrait, 1876. Source: Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/pin/453315518722612671/

Initially, I surmised that the much taller Chinese man to be a merchant. He is dressed in a familiar blue tunic and black pants, and rises from an oblong stool and leans over a small table toward his customer to offer the small man something. Did he just light Nast’s cigar, or is he offering Nast an alternative – an opium pipe? The slant of the Chinese eyes are quite exaggerated, but his expression is more friendly than sinister. Nast posture indicates little fear. The Chinese man’s feet are quite tiny.

I showed the image to historian and author John Kuo Wei Tchen (New York University) and appreciate his quick reply. Tchen feels the Chinese figure is more likely an employee at a tobacconist shop, rather than a merchant. His response in today’s email includes the following:

“There were Chinese cigar wrappers [especially] in the earlier antebellum era, and its possible the owners of these small shops would have welcomed guests to come in for a smoke. How long they continued, I don’t know but its possible even into the Civil War Chinese men could have worked in such stores around Chatham Square especially even if they weren’t the owners. That would not quite make them merchants but employees. And Herald Square was just blocks away (indeed very close to Park Row where some of the first cigar wrapper shops seems to have been & I suspect if memory serves me some of the wrappers lived around Herald Sq). If so, I’d be more specific and say the Chinese man could have been either a worker in a tobacconists’ store and/or a cigar maker and owner of a small cigar wrapper shop. The “merchant” category, though as defined by the letter of the Exclusion Act might be technically accurate, is a bit blurry in the usage here.”

Tchen also discounted the theory of an opium pipe. It was customary for patrons to recline when smoking an opium pipe.

At first glance, under the shadows of the table I thought I could make out artist’s strokes form in the shape of a pig, with its snout pointed down toward the center. Pigs were a stereotye often used to indicate the Chinese. If this is a pig, vague or not, it is Nast’s first use of the stereotype. Upon further inspection, I retract that opinion, and agree with Tchen that it is more likely Nast or the small youth is sitting, and the shape of his extended legs are less defined by the artist. Behind the customer, shadowy strokes create a sole figure witnessing the transaction. A single word hovers on the wall above the merchant’s arm, but it is difficult to make out the meaning.

Echoing Tchen’s speculation from his book New York before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture  (see Overview)  “Nast’s exposure to living and breathing Chinese and other racial groups was probably quite limited” (211). It is unknown if Nast ever met or associated with a Chinese person in New York. Reportedly only 200 Chinese were in New York in 1870 – or how he felt about them. Tchen suggests Nast represented what he knew or was told about the Chinese, rather from direct personal knowledge.”

From this watercolor it appears Thomas Nast had direct contact with Chinese immigrants.

Furthermore, dating the image to the antebellum era of the New York cigar wrappers, as Tchen suggests, explains Nast’s appearance. Nast first gained recognition as a Civil War illustrator for Harper’s Weekly. Before the war and his own fame, Nast would have had a.) possibly more time to paint, b.) had not yet grown the facial hair (as seen in the 1859 image above) and c.) he may have not yet created his distinct signature found on his later cartoons with Harper’s.

Whether Nast did or did not meet a Chinese person in his lifetime, this painting clearly demonstrates an attitude toward them. It depicts a harmless and ordinary patronage of a Chinese-owned business and clearly, Nast is not afraid to interact with Chinese shop owners or their employees.

Initially, I was concerned about the the signature. In his cartoons, oil paintings and some known watercolors, Nast used his characteristic Th Nast  or Th:Nast. script:

Thomas Nast's signature Thomas Nast’s characteristic signature. Source: Wikipedia Commons
Thomas Nast’s signature in 1872. Source: Historyforsale.com

The signature on the painting is quite different – plain and not stylized.

Close up of Thomas Nast printed signature Close up of printed signature on watercolor

Apparently, a precedent exists – as this watercolor from Arader Galleries indicates.  It is attributed to Thomas Nast and establishes that Nast printed his signature without the flair in his early pre-fame work.

The owner also sent me additional images in hopes to find further information. Nothing is written on the back.

Thomas Nast watercolor showing matting lifted to reveal size and shape

I am excited for Susan’s new find and so glad that she shared it with me. If indeed, it is an authentic Nast watercolor, it is extraordinarily special for its Chinese subject and self-portraiture. It is the only known image (in my experience) that includes Nast with Chinese-Americans.

Speaking on behalf of both the owner and myself, we would love to hear from Nast experts and curators concerning this watercolor.

All photos of watercolor taken by owner and provided to this website with permission for use.

Follow up January 11, 2016: The owner of the image contacted Ryan Hyman, curator at McCollough Hall, and in viewing the photographs only, Hyman proffered that the painting is consistent with other Nast watercolors and the signature similar to others found in the early 1850s, a pre-fame period when Nast was a young adult and a practicing art student. Hyman thought the image of the short man/patron could indeed be a Nast self-portrait. The printed signature is also consistent with Nast before he became famous.  I advised Susan to seek out a professional appraiser, allow the painting to be personally examined and appraised, date the paper, etc., in order to establish its authenticity.

If authentic, and I think it is, the existence of this painting certainly suggests that Nast did personally meet and do business with Chinese people in New York City. There were few Chinese in New York City at this time (in the 1870s, only in the hundreds) so in the 1850s, it would have been quite a memorable experience for a young Thomas Nast, one worth documenting as a visual memory by means of this most interesting watercolor.

Thomas Nast’s passport

I came across this fascinating site from Princeton University’s Graphic Arts blog.

They got a hold of Nast 1860 European passport. Before the Civil War and employment with Harper’s Weekly Nast and as the passport stamps and registry shows, traveled extensively in Europe. 

“In 1859, Nast was hired by the New York Illustrated News but this passport was issued on 17 May 1860 so he could travel to Sicily representing The Illustrated London News and report on Giuseppe Garaibaldi’s military campaign to unify Italy. Mott notes that “Nast had not been paid by his employer, and had no money to make his Italian trip until Heenan, the American pugilist, lent him the necessary funds. Nast followed Garibaldi from Sicily to Naples, right through the battle of Volturno, October 1-2, and his articles and illustrations covering the war captured the American imagination.”

Terrific images!

https://graphicarts.princeton.edu/2015/02/03/thomas-nasts-passport/

“Political Capitol and Compound Interest” 1880

“Political Capitol and Compound Interest” – 31 January 1880 by Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly. Source: UDel-Walfred

Like the year before, 1880 was not a good one for presidential hopeful James G. Blaine. Thomas Nast went after the Republican senator from Maine with a visual vengeance. Nast broke his allegiance with his beloved party of Lincoln, and took on Blaine with a relish comparable to his attacks on William. M. Tweed more than a decade earlier.

Blaine aspired for national office.  He sought to win votes in California and made a decision to break from his party and earn votes by siding with anti-Chinese Denis Kearney and the Workingmen party. Kearney’s war cry, most notably delivered in vacant Sand Lots, coined the phrase “The Chinese Must Go” which he delivered with charismatic zeal before and after each speech.

In this alternative reality cartoon, it is the Chinese who demand that Kearney, and his supporter from Maine leave. The Chinese figure is confident and defiant and taunts Blaine behind his back. He removes his hat to expose his shaven head, except for the braided queue grown from his crown. He dangles the braid toward Blaine, who doesn’t appear to know quite what to make the behavior. Chinese were typically thought to be docile, but this Chinese man feels emboldened to lash out at the august senator. Blaine’s expression is not one of appreciation.

On February 14, Blaine is reported to have been asked, “Ought we to exclude them?” His reply: “The question lies in my mind thus: either the Anglo-Saxon race will possess the Pacific slope or the Mongolians will possess it” (qtd. Gyory).

Nast taunts his nemesis as well with the visual question, how does it feel to have done to you what is being done to the Chinese?

The Chinese man craves an answer to the same question.  He wants Blaine to experience what it feels like to be an outcast and to be excluded.  The Chinese were legally prohibited from becoming citizens and could not vote.  Nast identifies the Chinese man as a”Non Voter” who exclaims: “Now Melican Man know muchee how it is himself.”

Above the Chinese man’s head, a sign shows a trans-Atlantic handshake between Democrats in California and Republicans (led by Blaine) in Maine. The handshake is a fusion of interests and with Maine breaking with the Republican Party, a change in immigration policy.

This sign, as well as top banner, plays on the word “fusion.” Nast adds the preface “con” to indicate the tumult his Republican Party is experiencing.

Another sign reads, “Denis Kearney is ready to lead a gang of men to Maine, to make the Republicans GO.” Although Blaine clearly jumped the Republican ship on the Chinese issue, Kearney had not converted the rest of the Republican Party. The signs on the wall warn Republicans that with Kearney in control, and along with the Chinese, the Republicans were next on his Exclusion list. Blaine, hat in hand, is appealing to stay. With his break in philosophy, the Chinese see Blaine as a traitor.

In California, Republicans sided with the capital interests of labor and soon fell out of favor once Kearney began his campaign to oust the Chinese. Kearney and the Democratic Party soon dominated California politics, and politics there clearly fixated on removing the Chinese.

Harper’s editorials had previously lamented the abrogation of the treaties and Blaine’s role in the treaty’s demise and decried that presidential politics had trumped common sense:

CONGRESS has announced to the world that the United States intend to break treaties at their pleasure. The peremptory abrogation of the Chinese treaty is a flagrant breach of public faith which sullies the good name of the country, and puts every other nation upon its guard in under-taking any dealings with us which depend upon our honor… But to argue that the presence of a hundred and ten or twenty thousand Chinese upon the Pacific coast is such an imminent peril to American society and civilization as to justify the peremptory abrogation of a treaty, without notice or attempted friendly modification, is insulting to common-sense. (Harper’s Weekly, March 30, 1879).

Additional reading: Andrew Gyory, “Don’t think Trump will ever pass a Muslim Exclusion Act? Just ask Sen. James G. Blaine,” The Washington Post, December 8, 2015

Works cited

Power of the Cartoon Cover

On Monday, December 7, 2015, Bill Bramhall, editorial cartoonist for the New York Daily News published the following image of presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, in response to Trump’s announced policy of denying Muslim immigration to the U.S.

The image was placed on the cover of the daily paper, overlaid by an updated and paraphrased version of Martin Niemöller’s iconic and poignant quote from 1963 about his inaction regarding Adolf Hitler:


The image shows the Statue of Liberty as a victim of Trump’s political terrorism. Lady Liberty, the beloved symbol of American values and immigration, is beheaded.  A bloated Trump raises his weapon of choice, a scimitar,  historically associated with Eastern and Ottoman cultures. In effect, Trump balances his own scales of justice with her head in his other hand. The remainder of her majestic body lies prostrate, her torch has tumbled away — her welcoming beacon of light is extinguished.

Bramhall’s image brings to mind Thomas Nast’s 1871 double-paged cartoon,”The Tammany Tiger on the Loose – “What are you going to do about it?””

The Tammany Tiger Loose
“The Tammany Tiger on the Loose – What are you going to do about it?” by Thomas Nast, 11 November 1871. Source: The Ohio State University

Though not a cover, (many of Nast’s cartoons were featured as covers), this cartoon received an equally coveted double-page spread in the center of Harper’s Weekly, the premier illustrated weekly of its era. A portly Tweed, whom Nast dresses as a Roman emperor, sits in his imperial reviewing box and gloats upon his weapon of choice, the Tammany Tiger as it takes down Columbia, Nast’s preferred personification of American values.  Drawn 15 years before the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in 1886, Nast favored Columbia as the maternal symbol to represent the American nation. Her cousins, Lady Liberty and Lady Justice, distinguished by a crested helmet and the scales of justice respectively, appeared less often as substitutions for Columbia, but frequently as sisterly companions.

Tweed’s tiger looks straight into its audience and bears its teeth, poised to tear into Columbia’s neck. Columbia often carried a sword, symbolizing the strength of her resolve to protect American values of tolerance, fairness, and compassion. Her weapon has left her grip, broken apart by the force of the beast’s pounce. Like Tweed, the tiger arrogantly asks, “What are you going to do about it?”

Thomas Nast, known as the “Father of American Caricature” or alternately as the “Father of the American Political Cartoon” rose to worldwide attention and wielded significant political power by the deft and powerful strokes of his pen — the ire in Nast’s ink often appeared on the cover of the illustrated weekly magazine, Harper’s Weekly. To get his message across, Nast and other great cartoonists of the time employed the ego-cutting tools of caricature: ridicule, physical exaggeration, and careful placement of symbols, to elicit emotions from readers and viewers. Nast is best known for excoriating and bringing down New York politician William M. “Boss” Tweed through these techniques. The visibility and power of Nast images continued for two decades as undeniably effective weapons against corruption.

Few escaped seeing Nast’s images. Apocryphally, Tweed is famously quoted as saying, “Stop them damned pictures. I don’t care so much what the papers say about me. My constituents don’t know how to read, but they can’t help seeing them damned pictures!”

According to Nast’s biographer Alfred Bigelow Paine, Tweed representatives tried to entice Nast with bribes to tempt the artist to stop maligning the city boss. Intrigued, Nast strung the agent along, seeing how high he could negotiate the bribe. It reached $500,000, a tremendous amount of money for its time. Nast refused to be bought.

This New Yorker cover from 2008 elicited a great deal of conversation and controversy. This The New Yorker cover from 2008 elicited a great deal of conversation and controversy.

The American editorial or political cartoon in the twenty-first century grasps an uncertain future. The genre thrived in Nast’s era, a time in which photographs could not easily be mass reproduced for the print media.  In the century that followed, modern political cartoons traditionally found their stage off the front page, yet, placed in a venerated position in the editorial sections of daily and weekly newspapers. The photograph took over on covers. There were exceptions, of course, the New Yorker magazine being the most notable, today giving prominence to the cartoon cover with provoking results.

The tradition of home delivery or buying a paper at a newsstand and enjoying that publication at the kitchen table or office desk— physically leafing the pages and sharing sections among family and friends, assured these editorial cartoons would be seen multiple times over.

With the demise of many print editions of newspapers and magazines, new generations of readers are now able to cherry-pick their news from online offerings. Some fans of the art form fear that these hand-drawn visual commentaries, and appreciation for what Donald Dewey has called The Art of Ill Will, might lose their historic influence, or get lost among the many clickable headlines, losing ground to the altered digital photograph — satire by Photoshop.

Bramhall’s cartoon offers hope that the cartoon caricature is still beloved. It possesses the qualities to pack a powerful punch. Bramhall’s image rose above the fray and was instantly picked up across media outlets and shared prolifically on social media.

The New York Daily News use of Bramhall’s cartoon as its cover, therefore, is in the best tradition of an excellent and scathingly successful takedown of a public figure by an editorial or political cartoon, drawn and delivered, much like Trump’s sword, as a blunt  courier of raw truth. In the best New York City media tradition, the cartoon exposes both the disturbing and the ridiculous.

In our saturated and specialized markets, editorial cartoons must compete for broad attention. But when they are timely and deftly drawn, these black and white lines of editorial expression expose stark realities through exaggeration. Ah! To dish out the glorious tool of ridicule, a technique Trump wields with expertise and lately, to great effect.

Like Nast and Bramhall’s cartoons, the crème de la crème of caricature will always rise to the top — viral-worthy, these images and the artists who create them, serve the public good by striking a tender national nerve and provoking us to consider both the obvious and the subtle.

If Nast were around today, he’d be proud, and perhaps, a little envious.