A Caricamural View of the American Civil War

In 1867 Thomas Nast, America’s foremost caricaturist and satiric graphic commentator, stepped away from the pen and ink, wood and metal engraved work he was known for to do a series of 33 painted panels known as Th. Nast’s Grand Caricaturama. With the ability to move, these murals became a staged traveling history show — from Nast’s perspective — half humorously narrated by an actor/lecturer, with each image given a musical underscore.

“Columbia and Jonathan At Home.” This represents the marriage of liberty and Jonathan (Uncle Sam) and the problems and betes noir that Nast found in the media.

An exhibition of five of these paintings took place at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (March 24-May 10, 1970) and National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington D.C. (July 1 – August 30, 1970). The catalog featured an essay by Lloyd Goodrich, a former director of the Whitney. He noted that Nast’s sketchbook in the Pierpont Morgan Library shows the genesis of the project in almost 200 pages. “Judging by his written notes,” Goodrich wrote, “Nast thought of the Caricaturama as a sort of historical fairytale, but one involving real persons . . . some of them mercilessly ridiculed.” Nast also employed the stereotypical conventions of his time. Although he was a Northern patriot and Lincoln loyalist, especially with regard the end of slavery and advocacy of equal justice, his caricature portrayals of African Americans leaned towards appearing racist.

As performance, the overall reception was favorable. “It was generally recognized that the artistic quality of the paintings,” Goodrich noted, “as well as the tone of the lecture and the music, raised the Caricaturama above the level of the ordinary panorama.” Nonetheless, the entire production was badly managed as a business. After running for a number of weeks in New York and Boston at no profit, Nast was compelled to retire the show and murals and return to cartooning.

In 1950 five of the large (8′ x 12′) paintings were found in a barn in Morristown, New Jersey, where Nast had lived. They were acquired by Erwin Swann, founder of the Swann Foundation of Caricature and Cartoon dedicated to scholarship on comics and cartoons in all media. The whereabouts of the other 28 paintings is a mystery. From the catalog, here are the extant paintings.

“The Kansas Row” represents one of the most bitter pre-war conflicts between North and South — whether Kansas should be free-soil or allowing slaves.

“King Cotton” is about the dependency of some European nations on the South for their cotton. The throne-room is filled with Confederates and the tall figure on the left, crowned with horns is sitting on a shield with an emblem representing the recently founded KKK.

“The Uprising of the North” shows Columbia (Liberty) brandishing her swords surrounded by her knights. In the sky is the idyllic vision of the American capitol. This is Nast’s testament to the righteousness of the Northern cause.

“The Massacre at New Orleans” is the only painting related to a real event. Reminiscent of Manet and Goya, it represents a conflict at a political convention where President Johnson (peering out the door) allowed Negro delegates to be killed or beaten by police and a white mob. Goodrich notes that this overt critique of Johnson, “anticipates the social content school of the 30s.”

 


For more Steven Heller, check out Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility, one of the many Heller titles available at MyDesignShop.com.

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