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Thomas Nast and New Orleans
Thomas Nast's Grand Caricaturama
You are in "Nast and Degas" by Albert I. Boime
Thomas Nast's contribution to "A Cotton Office in New Orleans"
Thomas Nast and Edgar Degas
The following paragraphs are excerpted from "The Interactivity of Thomas Nast and High Art," an article by Art History Professor Albert I. Boime of UCLA, specifically commissioned for HarpWeek and referred to for the first time on this site.
Nast’s reputation in New Orleans must have been considerably heightened during the time of Degas’ visit, when the minority Republican newspapers there praised him for helping defeat the Democrat Horace Greeley in the 1872 election. The white majority in New Orleans had pinned their hopes on Greeley to defeat Grant and abolish Reconstruction.
The French colony in New Orleans would have had their own special reasons for agonizing over Nast’s work and Harper’s Weekly. His King Cotton (in the Grand Caricaturama) was a reminder of the British and French dependence on Southern cotton and their indirect support of the Confederacy.

"King Cotton" painted by Thomas Nast
"King Cotton", Painted by Thomas Nast
for "The Grand Caricaturama"

Degas’ relatives themselves were wealthy cotton brokers and exporters of cotton firmly committed to the Southern cause. His uncle, Michel Musson, had joined a group of brokers who published a manifesto advising cotton planters to withhold their produce from New Orleans to encourage French intervention in the Civil War. As a result, Major General Benjamin Butler—the Union officer charged with the occupation of New Orleans after its capture—taxed Musson’s firm 500 dollars to help relieve the city’s starving populace.
Butler—still known in New Orleans as "the beast"—treated the French particularly harshly and forced many of them to flee. Butler’s severity was well known in the North, but he nevertheless enjoyed unqualified admiration and support in Nast’s circle. Indeed, the only total "whitewash" of Butler’s behavior in New Orleans was written by James Parton a cousin of Nast’s wife, and illustrated with a specially designed frontispiece by Nast (General Butler in New Orleans, New York, 1864). A runaway bestseller, the book went through over fifteen editions in its first year alone.
The participation of the French colony in the Southern struggle—to say nothing of its peculiar fear of its ex-slaves—was not the only reason for its probable acute sensitivity to Harper’s Weekly and Nast. Harper’s Weekly maintained strong business and editorial contacts in New Orleans and, despite the animosity, had a large Southern readership among the French community. This was due to Harper’s Weekly frontline coverage and graphic correspondents who provided the kind of firsthand reporting unavailable in local newspapers.
At the time of the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune (1870-1871), Harper’s Weekly furnished the country’s finest international coverage through its on-the-spot reporters and illustrators. The Franco-Prussian war decisively affected the French cotton trade in New Orleans by causing a reduction in the export of raw cotton, a state made permanent with the loss of the Alsatian textile mills. Harper’s Weekly sympathized deeply with the French cause during the Prussian siege, and even solicited funds to aid the French in their courageous resistance. During the Commune, Harper’s Weekly took the side of the Versaillais against the radical upstarts who had seized the municipal apparatus of Paris—a position again favorable to the French colony in New Orleans. Anxious about their relatives abroad, the French in New Orleans would have found extensive details in Harper’s Weekly about the aftermath of the Paris Siege and the bitter fighting of the Commune—as well as Nast’s venomous attacks on their fallen idol, Napoleon III.

Excerpted from "The Interactivity of Thomas Nast and High Art,"
an article by Art History Professor Albert I. Boime of UCLA.

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