Animal Symbolism & Wall Street

[posted for KM]

Burns, Sarah. “Party Animals: Thomas Nast, William Holbrook Beard, and the Bears of Wall Street.” American Art Journal, Vol. 30 (1999): pp. 8-35

Abstract Review by Kevin Mahala

Burns investigates the animal imagery prevalent in many of Thomas Nast and William Holbrook Beard’s art work in connection with the wildness of the New York Stock Exchange in the pre and post-Civil War Era. The animal imagery used by both Nast and Beard gave them the freedom to make statements in their artwork about society that they could not make if they used humans instead. Although Nast is mentioned in the title of the abstract, Burns mainly focus on Beard’s work, more specifically, his painting “The Bears and the Bulls in the Market”. Beard shocked many people by taking a topic normally reserved for political cartoons and by painting it with oil on canvas. Following the Civil War, the influx of immigrants and increasing urbanization created extreme pressure on the fabric of American society. The middle and wealthy class pushed back the rising immigrant classes. Burns focuses on how much of the artwork of the time depicted society as a menagerie or a zoo. Animals were such a useful metaphor for Beard and Nast because they helped to highlight the wildness that had captured the stock market. To outsiders, Wall Street was a mysterious place where money could be gained and lost very easily. It was also known as a “wilderness of confusion”(22), so much so that the terminology of “bears” and “bulls” became publicly engraved mental images. The clash between the “bears” and “bulls” when there was market frenzy was easiest to show audiences just how crazed Wall Street had become. Wild animals were easily contrived in the minds of people, as animal exhibits by P.T. Barnum had become a mainstay in urban culture. Barnum had encouraged ideas of Darwinism through his exhibit of the “Man-Monkey”, a half-man half-monkey creature. Nast furthered this notion through his political cartoon in which he depicted the Irish as monkey looking people.  The original Americans used a combination of Darwinism and Barnum’s displays to formulate a belief that the immigrant class was actually a lower developed species. Over time, people dismissed these racist Darwinist ideas as obsolete and dismissed Beard’s paintings as quaint.

Word Count: 347

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