Tag Archives: Nast signature

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 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 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.”

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 Nast is clearly not afraid to do so and 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 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.  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.

“Celestial” 1881

“Celestial” by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly, 2 February 1881. Source: UDel-Walfred

This small cartoon appeared on the back pages of Harper’s Weekly. Pre-Chinese Exclusion, the image reinforces stereotypes, both of the Chinese, here shown as “John Chinaman” and his nemesis, the white laborer, here a member of the Workingmen’s Party of California. This worker  resembles Nast’s generic representations of Irish white laborers pressing the California public and legislature to legally and socially drive the Chinese out.  The worker stands behind a sign that says “Sand Lots.” Sand Lots provided the stage where anti-Chinese agitator Denis Kearney popularized his anthem, “The Chinese Must Go” and rallied white laborers to organize themselves as the “Workingmen’s Party.”

The white laborer is scruffy and unkempt with an unflattering protruding jaw line.  On his hat a band reads “A Vote.” He looks directly at the Chinese man. The outline of a cloud in the sky resembles smoke emanating from the man, but he is not smoking. Off in the distance, Chinese workers are traveling to and from a laundry.

Between the two men, a sign “The New Chinese Treaty” has fallen on the ground. The original Burlingame Treaty, enacted in 1868 to protect Chinese immigrants in the United States, and which bestowed most favored nation status to China, had since gone through many revisions, each increasing limitations upon the Chinese.

The Chinese man attempts diplomacy. He approaches his adversary with deferential respect, his hand to his chest in a slight bow. His head dips to acknowledge the working man. The caption reads,

“The Yellow Dragon. “Of course, I did not hope to suit you, but this is for my friend, Uncle Sam, and it will even enable you to get better accustomed to this land of freedom, which you have adopted and which protects you.”

Many Irish-born, anti-Chinese agitators, like Denis Kearney and the working men who followed him, were naturalized citizens and earned the right to vote in elections.  The vote empowered the Caucasian laborers to lobby effectively against the Chinese. State and federal laws prohibited the Chinese from becoming citizens and voting.

Detail
Detail

In these smaller cartoons, Nast frequently shows Chinese figures carrying laundry tubs, washboards and engaging in laundry services. The Chinese did not come to America with any particular knowledge or skill of laundering, but they adopted the laundry industry as a practical matter when populations in western towns exploded. No one else wanted to do the work and it provided income to the Chinese while rendering a valuable service to the community.  The availability of well-priced,Chinese laundry service freed white women from the tedious household task.  A win-win situation for both white and Chinese families. The figure in the center is going about his business, with a smile upon his face.

Driven out of the mines and infrastructure jobs, Chinese moved into a wide variety of occupations that provided needed services. In addition to laundry, the Chinese were noted as shoe cobblers, cigar makers and tea merchants. Nast’s Chinese launderer may be seen as a stereotype, but by repeating this trope, Nast perpetuates another American perception about the Chinese – their docility.Whether intentional or not, Nast’s background images reinforces the Chinese as peaceful, non-threatening members of society.

Kearney and his his Sand Lot speeches were effective. Despite the Chinese’s limited presence in these service roles, Kearney’s Workingmen’s Party were nevertheless threatened by their existence. They demanded white households to boycott all services rendered by the Chinese.

In his cartoons, Nast alternated the placement of his signature. Here it is on the side of the Chinese diplomat. Plenty of room existed on the left to place the signature. There is evidence to suggest that Nast signed his name next to a person or cause to reaffirm an editorial position.

“Church and State – No Union Upon Any Terms” 1871

“Church and State – No Union Upon Any Terms” 25 February, 1871 by Thomas Nast. Source: Library of Congress

Nast and his publisher Harper’s Weekly strongly believed in the separation of church and state. No other issue rankled Nast more than the public school issue and no other issue called to define where the line to separate church and state should be drawn. William M. “Boss” Tweed supported Irish Catholic demands for public funds to establish their own sectarian schools. If allowed to stand unchecked and unchallenged, Nast feared the repercussions of all groups and religions dragging their special interests before the state for favors and custom dispensations.

In this marvelously detailed drawing, the scene Nast so feared is put into reality. Each figurehead of a religious state is pulling from behind a pull toy representing their church (or non-church). They approach Columbia at the foot of the state building.  Elevated to emphasize her wisdom and revered status, Columbia will entertain none of their appeals, she shoos them away with her hands. Above her head enlightenment and wisdom glows.

On the right, most of what is in tow are miniature churches or religious buildings that resemble playhouses.

Detail
Detail

A German and Chinese delegation approach together on the left. They are the only two who have brought people, not buildings with them as examples of need. A  German smokes a pipe while he waits for  his audience with Columbia. He totes a beer-drinking, august regent who sits upon a barrel and raises his foamy mug in the air. Next to him is a Chinese diplomat who has brought along a “Heathen Chinee” kneeling on a padded four-wheeled cart. His posture is erect, and he is naked from the waist up. His long queue falls past his back and behind the cart. The face of the kneeling figure is highly stylized. By mentioning the Chinese as heathen, Nast acknowledges the rights of believers and non-believers to equally petition the government, even if the answer is “no.”

All religions, non-religions (heathens) and factions are on the same level of their appeal – each represents a desire to advocate for their cause and constituency. Columbia rejects their pilgrimage. Columbia rests on her principles, and will not grant or refuse favors on an individual basis. All are accorded the same consideration. All religions are separate from the state.

To the right, Nast draws an array of cupolas, domes spires and steeples and the plain A-frame roof of Mormonism gathered to receive official favor. A Native American stands among the congested crowd of churches, waiting to be anointed with the approval of the state in the same way New York City had blessed the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church at center right, displays the most elaborate replica of a house of worship.

At the center, a Union soldier, and what appears to be a man wearing a Tam o’ Shanter cap, bars the entry to the state steps with crossed rifles.

Nast signed his name at the foot of the Chinese diplomat.

“Difficult Problems Solving Themselves” 1879

Modern sensibilities and commentary have at times criticized Nast’s “John Chinaman” or “John Confucius” representation as an example of Chinese stereotype.  Certainly, Nast could have varied facial expressions and dress. Many Chinese in America had assimilated, particularly in New York City and other East Coast port cities. In repeating his imagery, one might argue that Nast helped to perpetuate and anchor the stereotype which stressed their exotic dress and long hair.  For Nast, it was likely a combination of artful economy and providing a recognizable figure for general public identification.

Difficult Problems Solving Themselves, Harper’s Weekly, March 18, 1879, Library of Congress

Difficult Problems Solving Themselves shows the balance of Nast’s work and his intention to portray the Chinese in a fair, if not superior light. Here, John Chinaman is leaning against a directional signpost pointing eastward. He is literate. He is reading, in English, the San Francisco Hoodlum’s headline cries to “Go East Young MAN.” He is juxtaposed against another victim of racial discrimination, “A. Freedman” an African American forced or bull-dozed to move westward. Alongside the African American is a mother covered in a shawl and holding a young infant. Alongside of her, is a young boy. The woman and two children appear to be white. The older child appears to wear a tunic instead of a western-style shirt and pants. On his head is a white kufi, a traditional Islamic head covering for males.

The signpost divides the scene and the two travel paths dominate the cartoon. Unlike a regular signpost buried in the ground, this post emerges from roots. The division is firmly planted in the American soil. The signpost occupies the middle ground and blocks compromise. The post is is deeply rooted, like a tree.

In splitting the image the signpost depicts a nation with strong and divided social and political ideologies. The Chinese man’s queue runs parallel to the embedded signpost, and is nearly as long, suggesting a cultural devotion to the queue, but Nast acknowledges the hairstyle’s divisive role in separating Chinese from American. Both African American and Chinese travel toward a region of promise, but the stark reality is that each is merely switching locations with the other. While buildings in the background offer a “welcome” it is unlikely that any region purging one non-white race will likely accept another.

This image could be indicative of a pattern where Nast places his signature in a cartoon and what that placement might suggest. Instead of signing in ample blanks spaces to the left or to the right, Nast signs his work vertically up the signpost. It is the most neutral location and likely purposeful, since it is atypical of Nast’s usual signature placement. See ““The Nigger Must Go” and “The Chinese Must Go”