Thomas Nast’s ‘Central Park in Winter’

Two scenes, showing skating and sleighing in Central Park. The top panel includes drawings of James Gordon Bennett Sr and Horace Greeley
For the January 30, 1864, issue of Harper’s Weekly, Thomas Nast drew a many-paneled illustration of Central Park in winter.  Like many of his works, this one featured a large central drawing, surrounded by smaller vignettes in round and elliptical frames.  The main drawing shows New Yorkers ice-skating on Central Park’s Pond.  (The Park was then only a few years old.)  Below that is a rather wild sleighing scene, in which genteel New Yorkers ride through a desolate terrain, as urchins throw snowballs or rocks at them.

The opening of Central Park coincided with ice-skating’s growing popularity, which took hold in earnest in the 1850s.  The Park was most heavily visited in winter, when its pond became crowded with thousands of skaters, whose activities Nast captures here in wonderful detail.  (Note the woman in the skating chair.)

Perhaps inevitably, Nast’s wonderland contains some politics, too.  Two months earlier, President Lincoln had been reelected as an inconclusive Civil War dragged on, inflicting terrible casualties.  New York, being a commercial center, had always viewed the war with ambivalence.  The conflict was contrary to the city’s interests, disrupting a lucrative trade with the South on which New York’s economy relied.  While many New Yorkers were ardent Unionists and Republicans, the city also had a large Democratic constituency, including a politically active immigrant population, which resented the war, the federal government, and the fuss about slaves.  Many, wishing a return to peace, had lately voted for Lincoln’s challenger, Democrat George McClellan.

Anger over the federal government’s war policies had boiled into violence the previous July.  New York became the scene of bloody draft riots, in which rioters lynched at least 11 blacks and 120 people were killed in street fighting between protesters and the police.  Poor whites were inflamed against a draft bill that Congress had recently passed: while ostensibly requiring all fit men to serve in the Union military, it contained a loophole that wealthier Northerners would use to evade the draft: arranging for a replacement by paying a bounty.

In the foreground of his skating scene, Nast (who ardently supported Lincoln and the war) highlights several figures, including a military man at the far left wearing a kepi—a reminder of high-minded Northerners voluntarily leading the Union effort as officers.  At right are two prominent New York newspaper editors, James Gordon Bennett Sr and Horace Greeley, who have run into trouble on proverbially thin ice.  Greeley is teetering, while Bennett has fallen, both near a hole signifying treachery.  Bennett had been an outspoken critic of Lincoln and proponent of McClellan, whereas Greeley, while fitfully supportive of the war, had recently embarrassed the Lincoln administration by engaging in bogus ‘peace negotiations’ with some Confederate representatives who turned out to be fakes.

Both editors, though overwhelmingly influential, earned Nast’s scorn because they were feckless peace-mongers.  To have ended the Civil War through a settlement at that juncture would have rendered the suffering of the soldiers in vain.

Their presence heightens the allegorical meaning of the left side of the tableau, where three figures guard the safety of the family and society.  Besides the Union officer, who holds a small boy in his arms, Nast’s own editor Fletcher Harper (with mutton-chop whiskers) stands over a young girl protectively, while a third man (unidentified, but probably a prominent editor, too) deferentially greets a woman standing at the edge of the ice.  Nast depicts these figures as both benevolent and patriotic.  Harper gave Nast a venue for his pro-Union and radically egalitarian views.

So what at first glance passes for an innocuous pleasure scene is a comment on specific editors, and a paean to the value of virtuous editors in a conflict-ridden time.

Image from this source.

Hello, 2016

Color drawing of a female ice-skater being pushed out onto the ice, her skirt and scarf flying..

A new year begins, bumpy with the legacy of all the months and years preceding.  On the brink of the presidential primary season, we see patches and hazards ahead that bear the marks of the candidates, their penchants, and those of previous presidential administrations.  We advance in a world filled with drones, guns, bombs, hotheads, and uncompromising minorities, some of these made more fearsome by government missteps or inactivity.

The deeds and failures of our political leaders and America’s most powerful citizens shape the society we must make our way in.  As we careen into January, it befits us to acknowledge the best and worst of 2015:

Biggest winner
Barack Obama, who achieved most of his agenda for 2015.
Biggest loser
Every state that has refused to expand Medicaid.

Worst politician
Rahm Emanuel, narrowly beating out Benjamin Netanyahu.
Best politician
It’s still Bill Clinton.

Most overrated
Scott Walker, once touted as the ideal GOP candidate.
Most underrated
John Kerry, America’s best statesman since Kissinger.

Most stagnant thinker
The US Congress.
Most original thinker
The creative team behind NASA’s Mars Rover.

Best political theater
Pope Francis addressing Congress.
Worst political theater
Paul Ryan’s beard.

Worst lie
That Carly Fiorina is qualified to be president.

Best photo-op
September’s blood moon.

Capitalist of the year
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, now owner and invigorator of the Washington Post.
Turncoat of the year
Ted Cruz, now excoriating a justice he once admired.

Worst political scandal
Chicago’s cover-up of police misconduct.

Worst idea
That the US should wage war against ISIS in the Middle East.
Best idea
That everyone living in the US should have a legal status.

Boldest political tactics
Donald Trump’s.

Best government dollars spent
Investments in NASA that brought us closer than ever to Mars and Pluto.
Biggest government waste
Most of our military involvement in the Middle East.

Honorable mention
The swansongs of John Boehner and Joe Biden.

Enough already!
Obamacare repeals.

Sorry to see you go
Good-bye to the open out-cry trading pits of Chicago!

Destined for political oblivion in 2016
Marco Rubio, who has foolishly burned his bridges to the Senate.
Destined for political stardom in 2016
South Carolina governor Nikki Haley.  She is a prime pick for VP.

Image: Ethel Rundquist’s cover illustration
for the January 1916 issue of
Vanity Fair, from this source.

Ready or Not

Puck Christmas 1899 (Courtesy Library of Congress)
The new American girl glides into a new century on the 1899 cover of Puck magazine.  She holds onto her hat, her skirts flapping and duster billowing out behind her, a measure of her velocity.  She smiles in a frank and carefree way, as Puck pushes her from behind.

Frank Nankiwell‘s marvelous drawing captures the freedom and athleticism that the American girl of this era was enjoying.  Though her clothes look constraining to a modern eye, in relation to fashions that had come before, her garb was practical, masculine, and revealingly form-fitting.

In the Gay 1890s, as horizons for women broadened, their increasing physicality prompted dramatic changes in the clothing they favored.  Women began wearing shirtwaists and belts borrowed from men’s fashions.  Their bell-like skirts hugged their hips and thighs, before flaring out dramatically above the knee.  The length was short enough to reveal ankles and leave feet more free.  So dressed, the American woman moved faster and more freely, increasingly visible on skates, on bicycles, and in automobiles.

Image from this source.