One of the many Catskills prints from the 19th Century in our Justine Hommel Archive Room is Thomas Nast's classic 1866 print “Sketches Among the Catskill Mountains” which appeared in Harper's Weekly over a hundred fifty years ago in July 1866. Nast is considered the “Father of the American [political] Cartoon,” and for good reason. He introduced the elephant and the donkey to represent the Republican and Democratic parties, created a series of cartoons that helped bring down Boss Tweed and, in a lighter vein, created the image of Santa Claus that persists to this day.
Nast's two page spread of twenty-eight illustrations appeared in Harper's July 21, 1866 issue but was conceived in the previous September during his two-week stay at the Catskill Mountain House. Five months before his stay, our country went through one of the most significant months in our history. In April 1865, the Civil War ended with Lee's surrender at Appomattox and President Lincoln was assassinated. The mix of grief, melancholy, and relief that Nast, his family, their servant, and other late summer guests at the Mountain House felt must have pervaded the mood at the Mountain House that September. During the war, a large portion of the pages of Harper's Weekly covered its events. In these illustrations Nast captured scenes of a recovering America, at least scenes of a recovering upper-class America relaxing and playing in the idyllic Catskill Mountains.
The Mountain House itself occupies the center of the print and is immediately surrounded by serious views of the mountains and waterfalls. A sketch of guests looking out from the Piazza at the expansive view of the Hudson Valley seems to me to have a pensive mood, reflecting the post war feelings of the guests. The other illustrations at the center of the piece accurately capture the mountain scenery.
It is in many of the smaller cartoons that border the print where Nast's humor comes through. A guest arrives with a massive trunk and later leaves passing the staff, his pockets empty—their hands outstretched for tips. Another guest tries to shake a chained bear off his leg, a mother reads her paper oblivious to her children running near the cliff, while a nanny tries to keep them under control. Budding artists are perched on every rock trying to capture their personal landscape masterpieces. A hiker is held back from the brink of a cliff by his fearful spouse, and after a long day, dreams of tumbling from a ladder to the top of yet another cliff.
The print is a masterpiece of Catskills illustration. We are fortunate that 'The Father of the American Cartoon' graced us with this view of his visit to our Catskill Mountains.