STOCKBRIDGE — There's no mistaking what cartoonist Thomas Nast thought of President Andrew Johnson. In a cartoon from 1866, he depicts Lincoln's successor as a Napoleonic despot, seated on a throne surrounded by his ministers. Lady Liberty sits in shackles at his feet, and a long line of opponents are waiting to have their heads chopped off — including, in a melodramatic flourish, a self-portrait of Nast himself.
"Nast was not subtle," said Venus Van Ness, archivist at the Norman Rockwell Museum. "He'd bang you over the head."
It is impossible to hide the passion behind the work, even if the details may have dimmed in the past 150 years. It won't be clear who these people are or why that one fellow has a giant medallion stamped "290" around his neck, but a new and timely exhibit at the Norman Rockwell Museum aims to tell part of the story about the father of American political cartoonists and his times.
"Presidents, Politics, and the Pen: The Influential Art of Thomas Nast" features a series of Nast's trenchant political cartoons from the six presidential campaigns after the Civil War, when he was at the height of his influence. And while the details may differ, his topics — civil rights, good government, what it means to be American — are as enduring as many of his most famous tropes, like using elephants and donkeys to symbolize Republicans and Democrats.
The 24 woodblock engravings in the show are from the museum's collection. Also included are four rare original drawings on loan from a museum in New Jersey and a private collection.
All of Nast's work in the show appeared in Harper's Weekly, an important Republican magazine that boasted around 120,000 subscribers. "It wasn't aimed at everyone," Van Ness said. "Their readers were educated, middle-class Republicans."
The exhibit runs through Dec. 4. During Saturday's opening reception, there will be a presentation by political cartoonist Steve Brodner, whose work has appeared in Esquire, The Nation, and The New York Times Book Review, among many other places.
"There will never be another Nast, but none of us working cartoonists will ever get that through our heads," he said in a statement. "We try every day to hit the bull's-eye as well as he did."
Nast was born in Germany in 1840 and moved with his family to New York when he was six. Though he dropped out of school at 14, he trained as an artist and made his reputation during the Civil War by drawing battlefield and camp scenes for the illustrated press. After the war, his work turned political.
Van Ness said Nast differed from his peers in his use of dense symbolism and complicated literary references — drawing on Greek and Roman myths, Shakespeare, and classic literature to bang his point across.
In one print from the 1872 election, Horace Greeley, who was running against Nast's friend and hero, President Ulysses Grant, is depicted as a Trojan Horse. He stands with his giant donkey ears outside the walls of Washington, as an assortment of unsavory Democratic constituencies clamor to get on board — among them Irish party hacks and a Klansman.
Nast loved to repeat images across several cartoons, and here the tail on Greeley's horse is labeled as his running mate Benjamin Gratz Brown. Throughout the campaign Gratz Brown would be depicted as a tail, or a coat-tag.
"He kept the tail because its was so effective," said Rockwell Museum associate registrar Barbara Rundback, who also helped organize the show.
But in the complicated political ecosystem, Nast also knew how to pull a punch. In 1880, he decided he couldn't support Republican nominee James Garfield because of his involvement in a railroad stock bribery scandal earlier in his career. But he couldn't quite bring himself to support the Democratic challenger, Winfield Scott Hancock, even though he was an esteemed war hero. In one image, he showed Hancock as a Gulliver, overrun by the usual Tammany hacks and other Democratic n'er-do-wells.
"He didn't want to hammer him, as he had so many others," Rundback said. "In this case he didn't want to portray Garfield at all, and his only choice was to go after the Democratic Party. Here he is a giant, tied down by Lilliputians."
His readers back then would have had the patience and time to follow the details and spent some time with the images.
"I think people have changed," Van Ness said. "People had Harper's, but they didn't have radio or t.v. or Facebook. They'd have time to read and analyze Now, you can't have multiple layers of subtext. You have to be right out there."
Unpacking some of the layers is an important part of the show, which includes a digital tour to help decipher what is going on. Part of the challenge is getting a sense of how different the details of political positions were at the time. It can be hard to fathom how Nast could be an ardent abolitionist who consistently supported civil rights for freed slaves and dignity for Chinese immigrants, but freely deployed profoundly racist imagery about the Irish immigrants whose urban machine politics he so despised. One image from 1884 features Republican nominee James Blaine (drawn with a giant feather in his cap, another recurring Nast joke about a moment years earlier when an admirer had described him as a "plumed knight") on his knees pandering for votes from a simian-looking Irish voter.
Coming as it does just as the political season reaches its shrillest, it is impossible to resist wondering what Nast would have made of this election. One can imagine recurring broadsides featuring a certain sharp, platinum combover and tiny little fingers. On the other hand, he was no fan of women even voting let alone running for office. He once depicted as a prominent suffragette as a demon.
Van Ness said the exhibit rewards curiosity about the past, with the joy of seeing a master cartoonist's work.
"We hope people enjoy the artwork, but also learn something," she said.
And about that medallion — it is hanging around the neck of Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. "290" was the hull number of a British-built Confederate warship, the Alabama, which sank dozens of Union ships during the war. Efforts to extract reparations from Britain after the war were on ongoing source of political outrage.
IN THE GALLERIES
What: "Presidents, Politics, and the Pen: The Influential Art of Thomas Nast"
Where: Norman Rockwell Museum, 9 Glendale Road (off Route 183), Stockbridge
When: Saturday through Dec. 4
Museum hours: Through October — 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily (Thursdays until 7 p.m.). November/December — 10 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends and holidays; closed Thanksgiving Day
Admission: $18 adults; $17 seniors (65+); $16 veterans; $10 college students with ID; $6 children/teens, 6-18; free, museum members and children 5 and under
Information: nrm.org; 413-298-4100