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