These scenes are creations of Thomas Nast, as illustrations for Harper's Weekly on January 24, 1863, three weeks after Abraham Lincoln signed his Emancipation Proclamation. This later lithograph, printed in Philadelphia, was a slightly altered depiction with a portrait of Lincoln in the bottom center. Lithographic printing was developed late in the eighteenth century and is an art form in itself. The piece is drawn on a stone with grease pens. After some processing, ink will adhere only to the portions that were drawn on, and paper placed on the stone will absorb that ink, transferring the image without indention of the paper.
Nast drew these scenes to celebrate emancipation and reissued it in 1865 to celebrate the end of the Civil War. The central scene shows a comfortable domestic view, anticipating a happy future for free people. The family—consisting of several generations: from the baby on the father's knee, to the young courting couple in the background, to the elderly woman beside the modern stove—is the epitome of middle-class Victorian values. In the plush, well-furnished room a portrait of Abraham Lincoln looks down benevolently from above the mantle, and a banjo hangs on the wall.
The other scenes are split between slavery-era depictions, on the left with a Confederate flag flying, and postemancipation depictions, on the right with an American flag. On the left, escaping slaves are pursued through a swamp, a family is torn apart as a man is sold on the auction block, and slaves are punished as a woman is whipped and a man is branded. Juxtaposed with those are the scenes on the right, where a couple sits outside a cabin, the man playing a banjo; children happily leave home for school; and African Americans are paid wages. Yet, a small scene shows African Americans field-workers deferentially removing their hats for a white man on a horse, who tips his hat to them. Even in a world of freedmen, African Americans are relegated to agricultural work and a lower position than that of white people.
The artist of this lithograph, Thomas Nast, was born in 1840 in Bavaria. He moved as a child with his family to New York. Nast studied art under a fellow German emigrant and when he was fifteen began working as a staff artist for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Magazine. Within three years he was working as a freelance artist for many prestigious national magazines. In 1860 Nast traveled to Europe. During the Civil War he established himself as a political cartoonist, adamantly supporting the Union and justice for African Americans. Nast is considered by some historians to be the father of political cartooning, creating a genre that relies heavily on symbols and imagery. His most-lasting symbols are the fat jolly Santa Claus that we recognize today and the use of the donkey for Democratic Party and the elephant for the Republican Party. Nast died in 1902 in Ecuador where he was serving as United States consul under an appointment by President Theodore Roosevelt.
1. Why is Abraham Lincoln included with the scenes of African Americans?
2. How many symbols can you find?
3. Why do you think Thomas Nast chose the scenes he selected? Think specifically about the middle family scene, the slave auction on the left, and the schoolhouse on the right.
1. Thomas Nast was adamantly in favor of the Union and justice for African Americans. Even so, can you pick out ways that he depicted the predominant belief of the time that white people were superior to African Americans or that African Americans were not as capable as white people?
Keller, Morton. The Art and Politics of Thomas Nast. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.