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Thomas Nast and New Orleans
Thomas Nast's Grand Caricaturama
Nast and Degas by Albert I. Boime
Thomas Nast's contribution to "A Cotton Office in New Orleans"
Among the French artists of the period whose debt to caricature is established is Edgar Degas. As a young art student, Degas waited in eager anticipation of each new edition of Le Charivari for its Daumier cartoons. He collected the prints of Honoré Daumier, Paul Gavarni, and the eighteenth-century British caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson, and he followed the progress of contemporary British cartoonists like Charles Keene and his friend Carlo Pellegrini, whose work appeared in Vanity Fair under the signature "Ape." Since his own productions including monotype prints often verging on caricature, Degas searchingly looked to gifted graphic artists—including Japanese ukiyo-e printmakers—for such traits as physical and physiognomic distortion and exaggeration, unconventional poses, unpredictable settings, bold silhouetting, and the abrupt cropping of the human form for pungent visual effects.
Degas became attracted to Thomas Nast’s work, and while there is no documentary support of this assertion, I believe that the visual evidence is incontestable. Degas probably encountered Nast’s work for the first time when he visited his relatives in the United States in 1872, but he may have been already familiar with it from reading Le Monde illustré or flipping through the omnipresent Harper’s Weekly. Degas may also have known of Nast through the mediation of Pellegrini. Both Pellegrini and Nast joined Garibaldi for the siege of Capua, and the two reportorial illustrators must have met at that time. The British, moreover, responded very favorably to Nast’s work of the 1870s, and in 1872 Vanity Fair commissioned him to execute a series of caricatures of outstanding American statesmen. During the run of the series, Nast was compared to ‘Ape’ for better and for worse, and the result was unanticipated publicity for the American on both sides of the Atlantic. In any case, it is likely that Degas learned of Nast when he stopped briefly in New York en route to New Orleans in the autumn of 1872, or during his long stay in the Southern city. At that moment Nast was being celebrated nationwide for his triumphant victory over the Tweed ring.
Albert I. Boime
Professor of Art History at UCLA

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