A new film by Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu and scheduled to appear on PBS AmericanExperience in May.
Jean Pfaelzer, who contributes to the film at approximately 4:52, was my graduate professor and advisor at the University of Delaware and inspired me to study this chapter in our history. Her book, Driven Out is compelling story of how and why this disturbing part of our history came to be. This website is a direct result of Jeannie’s inspired leadership. Also contributing is John Wei Kuo Tchen, whose expertise I sought through two books, New York Before Chinatown, and Yellow Peril: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear. Dr. Tchen has also been wonderfully responsive via email and I appreciate his accessibility and contributions.
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:
The much taller Chinese man I initially guesed 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 the 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 painting’s signature is quite different – plain and not stylized.
Apparently, a precedent exists – as this watercolor from Arader Galleries and attributed to Thomas Nast indicates he might have printed his signature without the traditional flair.
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.
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, the painting is consistent with other Nast watercolors and the signature similar to others found on early 1850s, a pre-fame period when Nast was a young man and teenager and practicing his art skills. The curator 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 and affected a more flourished signature. The owner need 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.
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.”
An excellent essay on the history of racial attitudes in America. When we discuss “white privilege” today, a term which rankles many white Americans, one can find the origin of that attitude in our nation’s immigration history. An excellent recap with a thorough list of citations and quotes! I am proud my work is included.
I think it cannot be maintained by any candid person that the African race have ever occupied or do promise ever to occupy any very high place in the human family. Their present condition is the strongest proof that they cannot. The Irish cannot; the American Indian cannot; the Chinese cannot. Before the energy of the Caucasian race all the other races have quailed and done obeisance.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote those words in the late 1820s or early 1830s (Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, Volume 12). Someone asked, in response to that quote, “aren’t Irish white?” Well, to the younger Emerson, obviously the Irish weren’t white or rather weren’t Caucasian.
Another great American luminary was Walt Whitman, a close acquaintance of Emerson. From a personal letter, he called Emerson “dear Friend and Master” and the admiration was mutual, Emerson even having penned Whitman a letter of recommendation. In the following decade, writing…
If you are in the D.C. area celebrating our nation’s independence, take a moment to visit the “On the Move” tent at the Smithsonian Museum to hear Jean Pfaelzer talk about the Chinese experience in 19th century America.
It was through Jeanie, then “Dr. Pfaelzer” that I first learned about the Asian immigration experience in the United States, when I took a graduate level course, for no other reason than it fit my schedule. As an East Coast resident all my life, my curiosity swirled around my own region and my own Irish-American ancestry.
Jeanie is an inspiring educator and gifted storyteller. It is because of her this website exists. It is because of her I stretched my perspective and curiosity about the people who formed our American story and the compelling Often heartbreaking story of the first Chinese Americans!
Invitation to guest blog on Nast, immigration issues or political cartoons in general!
Did Thomas Nast influence your decision to become a cartoonist? Is there a particular cartoon of his that gave you pause, inspired or disturbed you? Nast is referred to as the father of the American political cartoon, but for you, where does he rank in the pantheon of polticial and editorial cartoonists?
This website averages 1,000 visits per week, with referrals coming in from universities and colleges, high schools, home schoolers and history buffs! This site is ad free and exists solely for academic purposes.
Comments on George F. Keller are also welcomed.
I’d love to add your perspective to the discussion! Thank you!
A few months after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act (May, 1882), this small square cartoon shows a U.S. Custom House official scrutinizing his law books in an attempt to define or clarify the ethnicity of four Asian men appealing for entry into the United States.
Three would-be immigrants are huddled behind a spokesperson, who denies he Chinese, and testifies he is instead Korean (Corean). Above their huddle, a banner testifies to the United States “treaty with Corea.” The sign also says, “Coreans may live at their option throughout America,” a privilege the Chinese once enjoyed under the protection and promise of the Burlingame Treaty.
Above the U.S. emblem reads, “E. Pluribus. Unum. Except Chinese.”
In addition to volumes on duties and antiques, behind the official is a “Vol. 1 on Bribes.”
The official, wearing a bicorn hat (Denis Kearney?)*consults with an open volume which describes the characteristics that distinguish a Chinese national from a Korean one. The volume refers to “color and pigtails.” The men attempting to enter the United States are wearing the Manchurian queues for which the Chinese were well known in America.
The Customs House guard raises his spyglass for a closer look at the petitioners, who exclaim,”You no stoppee me! me no China manee, me Corea manee; allee samee Melican manee.”
The gaggle of Chinese men behind their spokesperson appear to find the claim amusing.
*Denis Kearney was a self-described soldier against the Chinese immigrants. In California, San Francisco Wasp illustrator George Keller frequently depicted Kearney wearing military garb, and in particular, a bicorn hat. Nast also picked up the symbolism when referring to Kearney, though it cannot be determined this was his intent for this specific drawing.