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"Thomas Nast and Vincent van Gogh"
Vincent van Gogh's interest in art practice was quickened by exposure to the wood engravings of the popular illustrated journals of the day. This is seen in a letter to his artist friend Rappard at the beginning of February 1883 in which he recalls his London years a decade earlier:
I assure you that the Graphics I have now are amazingly interesting. More than ten years ago I was in London, I used to go every week to the show windows of the printing offices of the "Graphic" and the "London News" to see the new issues. The impression I got on the spot were so strong that, notwithstanding all that has happened to me since, the drawings are clear in my mind. At least my enthusiasm for those things is rather stronger than it was even then.
Van Gogh's letter coincides with a period of intense collecting of magazine and newspaper illustrations as a means of teaching himself to draw. He collected these prints either to file away for future use or copied them systematically to absorb the graphic techniques of his favorite illustrators and cartoonists.
He declared: "I would like to go to London with portfolio and visit the editors and managers of the illustrated journals-also get information about the different processes-a double-page spread allows for broader style." That he fully intended to specialize in magazine illustration is seen in his hopeful observation that magazine editors would welcome "somebody who considers making illustrations his specialty."
It was with this goal in mind that he systematically purchased and collected French, English, and American illustrated journals, and cut out the engravings that appealed to him and mounted them on heavy gray paper. These clippings clearly served multiple functions for van Gogh. First, they provided a ready reference file for his journalistic intentions, a familiar practice of the period and known in contemporary parlance as the 'morgue.' Second, van Gogh taught himself to draw in the abbreviated newspaper style by systematically copying these illustrations. Third, perhaps inadvertently, this practice affected his mature painterly methods that bear the impress of his having learned drawing from transcribing prints. The broad parallel gestures come straight out of the hatchings that he habitually rendered when copying wood engravings and lithographs, a practice that helps us understand the peculiarly graphic look of his paintings with their linear rhythms, outlined forms, and thick parallel brushstrokes. Hence van Gogh's definitive painting style paradoxically owes much of its novelty to his insistent attention to the conventional medium of popular illustration as much as to its message.
As shown in his correspondence, the peak years of van Gogh's interest in wood engravings are 1881-1883. During this period, van Gogh sent his brother Theo a detailed list of his collection of nearly one thousand prints. The artist had arranged them into eighteen portfolios and classified them by subject, artist, and in the case of 'the large pages' of Graphic, Illustrated London News, L'Illustration, and Harper's Weekly, by size. In effect, these illustrations provided him with the courage to persevere at a critical moment in his career. He wrote to van Rappard in October 1882: "I assure you, every time I feel a little out of sorts, I find in my collection of wood engravings a stimulus to set to work with renewed zest. In all these fellows I see an energy, a determination and a free, healthy, cheerful spirit that animate me. And in their work there is something lofty and dignified-even when they draw a dunghill."
Although van Gogh never mentions the German-born caricaturist by name, he systematically perused Harper's Weekly in which Nast's cartoons regularly appeared and eagerly collected his work. The Riijksmuseum van Gogh possesses a total of twenty-one cartoons by Nast, fifteen of which the Dutch painter bound together in a special album. The appeal of Nast to van Gogh no doubt operates at several levels. First, he was a successful cartoonist with an international reputation, and probably wielded more influence than any other artist of the nineteenth century. Amid the depressing gray flatness of most of Harper's illustrations, Nast's potent black-line medium and bold crosshatching stands out like a beacon in a fog. That these are qualities that would have appealed to van Gogh is seen in his discussion of division of light and dark planes in effective illustration: "Either the ground and the figures must be brought more into harmony and form a dark silhouette against the light sky-or sky and ground must form together a misty gray whole, against which the toneful planes of the figures stand out."
Independent of his graphic and political skills, Nast would have been a particularly appealing model for the Dutch artist. Like van Gogh, Nast's pictorial effects derived from a solid knowledge of Dutch landscape, French academicism and realism, as well as the work of the brilliant English and French graphic artists of the day including Leech, Tenniel, Doré, and Daumier. It may be recalled that Nast collected Doré's work, and probably knew the artist through Harper's firm; Doré’s London: A Pilgrimage was serialized in Harper's Weekly in 1872 and was the source of the illustration known as The Prisoners that van Gogh copied at Saint-Rémy.
Four of the Nast cartoons in van Gogh's collection-one representing a malaria victim in the nation's capital of November 26, 1881 [see "Pomps and Vanities"]; another of November 4, 1882 [see "Bill Sykes"], with a Dickensian theme, showing a Tammany 'Bill Sykes' masterminding the looting of the 'Public Treasury'; one of November 11, 1882  [see "Duty and Pleasure" below], ‘It is a Duty and a Pleasure to Vote’, satirizing coercive Democratic methods at the poll; and the fourth of December 31, 1881 [see "Constancy"], attacking Mormons for rejecting the Union's marriage laws-reveal the cartoonist's ingenious manipulation of masculine fashion reduced to secondhand clothing-tall hat, long frock coat-in creating salient shapes emblematic of urban squalor that van Gogh wanted to capture in his work. It is difficult to imagine that van Gogh did not have these documents before him, or similar ones culled from the journalistic illustrations of his time, when he sketched Orphan Man with Top Hat and Umbrella Under His Arm, Orphan Man with an Umbrella, Seen from the Back and Orphan Man with Top Hat and Stick, Seen from the Back at The Hague in the autumn of 1882.
Van Gogh's series of sketches of the orphan man (poorhouse pensioner), begun in September, takes on a noticeably more pronounced silhouette and bolder crosshatching technique in October-November, just at the moment when he is most subject to Nast's influence. During his sojourn in The Hague, van Gogh seemed particularly obsessed with figures viewed from behind, as indicated by several studies of outdoor scenes. Here Nast's ‘It is a Duty and Pleasure to Vote’ [see left thumbnail below], with its central protagonist seen from the rear and played off against a surrounding crowd, may have served van Gogh as an aide-mémoire.

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Duty and Pleasure,
November 11, 1882

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Greeting Card,
December 24, 1881

In addition to his crisply designed forms, Nast mined a vast repertoire of themes ranging from savage political caricature to light comedy. Van Gogh clipped out a Nast parody of a Christmas greeting card (December 24, 1881) depicting a summery July day [see right thumbnail above]; it displays a colossal sunflower motif and a pair of empty shoes that may just have resonated with van Gogh's sensibility. Even more striking: the pose of the figure seated in profile, with bare legs, on the edge of a riverbank, bears a remarkable similarity to van Gogh's drawing Sorrow, of April 1882, subsequently lithographed. Even the line of wildflowers and weeds running at a right angle to the bank is alike in both cases. In addition, van Gogh's insertion of the English title in a panel at the lower-right of the drawing recalls the cartoonist's device of introducing messages within the pictorial space, as Nast did with his label "Merry 4th of July." Finally, Nast's elaboration of the terminals of his capital letters seems to have influenced van Gogh's rather fanciful flourishes in the treatment of his title. What may have attracted van Gogh to Nast's cartoon in the first place was his relationship with the model for his drawing-Sien (Clasina Maria Hoornik), and her five-year-old daughter Maria Wilhelmina. Several studies of the period focus on a young girl (presumably Maria Wilhelmina) featuring motifs shared by the Nast child, such as Girl in a Wood, which depicts a girl lifting her petticoat, and Girl with a Pinafore.
Van Gogh's collection of Nast's cartoons included the subject of Jumbo the elephant [see "Embroil Nations"], the largest pachyderm in captivity and P. T. Barnum's spectacular attraction for "The Greatest Show on Earth." Nast based his composition on the colossal form of the animal. The sight of the ample bulk swelling to encompass the entire spatial field anticipates van Gogh's mature compositions in which a single, isolated motif-say, a horse, cow, chair, sunflower, a pair of shoes-dominates the pictorial field.
Van Gogh clipped another striking image of an animal by Nast, a large turkey confronting his would-be executioner (a poor farmhand with the kind of rough clothing van Gogh's peasants wear) just before Thanksgiving Day [see "Thanksgiving Dinner"]. Again, the reversal of human and animal relationships, with the underdog dindon-the French term for both a turkey and a stupid person-having the best of it, may have appealed to van Gogh's sense of humor. The artist clipped still another Nast study of animal-human encounter [see left thumbnail below], this time a composite of the human head of the Republican ex-Secretary of State James G. Blaine and the body of a rhinoceros which menacingly faces Democratic badger Perry Belmont-who had charged Blaine with covering up corruption when serving in President Garfield's cabinet. It cannot be coincidental that the contours of van Gogh's pathetic Horse at a Garbage Dump, especially those defining back and rump, follow closely those of Nast's rhino, including its bumps and sharp ridges. Van Gogh has also experimented in the neck area with a coarse crosshatching that further betrays Nast's influence.

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Bully and Browbeat,
May 13, 1882

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It Takes a Star to Catch a Star,
December 17, 1881

Two other powerful Harper's Weekly pages by Nast concern the Star Route investigations and prosecutions that commanded the newspaper headlines in late 1881 and 1882 [see right thumbnail above and "Fable"]. These routes were mail lines, indicated on the postal maps by a star, leading to remote points, inaccessible by rail; mail was still carried to them by horse-drawn vehicles. A ring of officials who controlled the payment of the carriers arranged to have their contracts drawn for amounts from five to ten times the coast of service. The profits, which ran into the millions, were divided among the enterprising grafters in almost every branch of the postal service as well as several members of Congress. Nast's lively images reveal his ability to create compositions of great complexity and profound visual appeal that nevertheless convey the message with vivid clarity. One of these, ‘It Takes a Star to Catch a Star’, must have caught van Gogh if only for the sou'westers—a waterproof hat with a very broad rim behind to protect the neck—worn by the offshore police dragging the ocean floor for Star Route grafters. In January 1883 van Gogh executed a series of fishermen wearing sou'westers from a variety of angles, just as Nast had done in his cartoon.
By contrast, however, other images by the American caricaturist collected by van Gogh appear more documentary and less striking for their visual effect. This would indicate the primary importance of the subject matter. We know that van Gogh was loath to cut away the text when he collected his illustrations because it proved useful for his referencing. The related text and the broader context of the newspaper's political and social perspectives help us understand why the artist valued these cartoons. Van Gogh's total involvement with Nast, visually and textually, is seen in the sheet devoted to Garibaldi at the time of his death in 1882, a moving testament to both artists' admiration for the hero of Italian independence [see "Garibaldi"]. Nast had been sent as a pictorial correspondent to cover Garibaldi's Sicilian campaign in 1860 and sketched the leader's portrait at Caserta. In his Harper's picture, Nast showed Garibaldi as he had sketched him from life there, twenty-two years previously. In this case, the Nast illustration served van Gogh both as personal memento and as stimulus to creation. Like Nast and every other liberal in the nineteenth century, van Gogh profoundly admired Garibaldi. Van Gogh compared the grand oratorical skills of this ideal "take-charge" person and committed patriot with those of his good friend Camille-Roulin, the postal official at the Arles Station, who "argues with such sweep, in the style of Garibaldi."
Van Gogh's affinity with the "despised and rejected" in any culture predisposed him to clip out Nast's ‘(Dis) Honors are Easy.' Now Both Parties Have Something to Hang On [see "(Dis)-Honors"]. The hard times of the previous decade led to a vicious scapegoating of Chinese laborers in California. Pressures for the exclusion of Chinese immigrants had their effect on the Republican party, Nast's party of choice, which until this period had supported open immigration. In 1882, a bipartisan Congressional coalition halted Chinese immigration, and Nast sharply attacked this momentous turn from the social policies of the Radical years. His cartoon shows a Chinese immigrant desperately hanging onto a branch of a Liberty Tree suspended over a steep, seaside precipice, while he is being pulled down by the Democratic Tiger holding onto his pigtail and the Republican Elephant with his trunk coiled around the Tiger, with the Tree of Liberty being uprooted.

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Fiendish Assassins
May 20, 1882

But it is especially the clipping of Nast's Fiendish Assassins. Poor Ireland. "Save Me from My Friends!" [see thumbnail above] that indicates van Gogh's absorption in the subjects of Nast's cartoons. The work refers to the assassination of Lord Frederick Charles Cavendish, chief secretary for Ireland, and Thomas Henry Burke, the under-secretary, by a splinter faction of the Fenian society in Dublin's Phoenix Park on May 6, 1882. Nast depicts a female personification of Ireland prostate with grief, while leaning for support on Justice and Columbia. In this case, the editorial complement of Nast's cartoon suggested that Irish-American Fenians instigated the conspiracy abetted by Democratic toadying to the Irish vote. It warned against alienating the moderates aligning themselves with Gladstone's Liberal policies and bringing back the old Tory theory "that the Irish are a king of wild beast, to be subdued only by absolute and unsparing force."
Nast shared the ethnic prejudices exhibited in the rest of Harper's Weekly and even created a vicious Irish stereotype. While the image in question delivered a backhand slap against American Fenians, it was atypically sympathetic in alluding to support for qualified home rule for Ireland. The image would have appealed to van Gogh's deep fascination with the Irish whom he encountered for the first time in London and whose poverty reminded him of the Dutch peasantry in the Brabant. In 1878 a major agricultural crisis in Ireland had threatened a recurrence of the terrible famine and mass evictions of the 1840s. To resist evictions, a group of Fenians founded the Irish Land League. Gaining the support of Charles Parnell, the parliamentary spokesperson for home rule in Ireland, the Land League became the focus of the hostile Tories who blamed it for the assassinations of Cavendish and Burke. Van Gogh began early to collect journalistic illustrations based on the Irish crisis, touching on matters of the 1840s, 1870s, and 1880s.
Writing van Rappard late in 1882, van Gogh notes that at present he has "No less than fifty sheets about Ireland," adding that while separately one might easily overlook them, taken as a whole "one is struck by them." Two of these belong to a series by Caton Woodville entitled The State of Ireland, one of which is Women Carrying Home Meal-Sacks from the Relief Committee, and may have influenced his own Bearers of the Burden. He also writes to his friend about a Frank Holl composition that appeared in an 1876 issue of the Graphic that he refers to as "Irish Emigrants" (though it is actually entitled Gone! --Euston Station):
I have something more to tell you in connection with Hol's [sic] "Irish Emigrants." The character of the woman I wrote to you about is something like that of the principal figure of that sheet-I mean the mother with the baby on her arm-that is, considered as a whole, without any attention to details. I could not give you a better description of her.
Here van Gogh was specifically referring to Sien, the pregnant prostitute whom he took in and sheltered. It may be recalled that, out of mixed personal, moral, and humane motives, van Gogh considered it his duty to try to rescue Sien and her daughter from hunger and degradation, but at the same time she became his model and companion. What is critical here is van Gogh's association of the deserted Irish with his impoverished friend. Here I believe that van Gogh intended to establish a deliberate link between the cartoonist's personification and this figure, as if he wanted Sien to serve an analogous allegorical enterprise. His attitude towards her and the poor refugees from Ireland betrays his middle-class paternalism, since he understands his role as a substitute parent who must care for indigent—especially female—souls. Hence I believe that it may not be fortuitous that his moving image of Sien in the Sorrow, previously discussed in connection with another Nast cartoon [see "Greeting Card"], was based in part on Nast's prostrate personification of Ireland. This is seen in the worn body, the way the head is concealed by the bare arm, and the strands of hair hanging loosely down the figure's back. (Although Nast's cartoon appeared in May, the month following the first studies of Sorrow, van Gogh tended to touch up his studies and embellish them, as seen in the reworking of the landscape setting and the figure's hair.)
The numerous points of contact between the Nast cartoons that van Gogh so lovingly preserved and his own work of the period in which he collected them attest to a rare artistic relationship in the nineteenth century. My purpose, however, in constructing this relationship was not merely to show van Gogh's dependence on Nast for specific motifs, but rather to demonstrate the close affiliation of an artist we now consider a "master" with a cartoonist relatively neglected in the history of art. Out of the welter of popular illustration and cartoonery, van Gogh managed to create a style that still remains accessible to a wide audience. It would seem that it is precisely this crossover between the high and low that marks the taste of the contemporary corporate millionaires who can afford to own an original. But if so, then Nast's contribution to the formation of this phenomenon has to be acknowledged. Naturally, it will never be possible to know fully what van Gogh derived from Nast, but if we are to begin to comprehend Nast's enormous appeal for him we need to develop a more inclusive approach to art historical practice. The missing link between these two cultural producers not only points to the politics of canon formation, but represents part of the larger issue of the depoliticization of artistic experience.
This essay is adapted from "The Interactivity of Thomas Nast and High Art" by Albert Boime. Citations are available upon request.
 

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