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, and as author of this site, having accumulated the most information on Nast and the Chinese, I was a natural person to ask. Nast watercolors are quite rare, and to see an art piece, featuring the artist, in what I believe to be a self-portrait, engaging in a transaction with a Chinese tobacconist, is a real treat!

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 guessed 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.”

Furthermore, dating the image to the antebellum era of the New York cigar wrappers, as Tchen suggests, explains Nast’s appearance. Nast gained fame first 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.) may have not yet affected his signature script which he signed his works as a well-known artist.

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

Does this image provide a clue that Nast did indeed meet and interact with Chinese business in New York City? Is this a recreation of that scene? Is it a fantasy painting, with the Chinese employee offering the artist a smoke of gratitude for championing their cause against Chinese exclusion? A date for the painting would offer some clues, but none exist. Gratitude would only be plausible if the watercolor were painted in the late 1870s or early 1880s.

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  indicates he might have printed his signature without the traditional flair in other early pre-fame work.

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

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, and a work that suggests he interacted with them on some level.

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 man and teenager 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, after which Nast employed a more flourished signature.  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 rule out any possibility of a forgery.

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 the teenage artist, 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