“Party Animals: Thomas Nast, William Holbrook Beard, and the Bears of Wall Street” (Model Abstract)

Burns, Sarah “Party Animals: Thomas Nast, William Holbrook Beard, and the Bears of Wall Street”  The American Art Journal 30.1-2 (1999): 8-35 

Abstracted by Tyler Whirty

Burns investigates the use of animal imagery in civil war-era art and cartoons.  She focuses mostly on the work of William Holbrook Beard, whose painting about Wall Street, “The Bulls and Bears in the Market,” utilized animal imagery of a cartoonish nature for the first time in high art. Burns attempts to answer both why Beard would utilize such “low art” qualities and how that utilization was so effective.  To do so, Burns reflects upon the sociocultural factors that contributed to the effectiveness of depicting Wall Street as a vicious fight between bulls and bears in front of the stock exchange. Among other things, Burns cites the prevalence of animals in everyday city life, anxiety caused by the specific example of an escaped tiger from the P.T. Barnum circus and, above all, public uneasiness with the Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection that made the distance between humanity and animals smaller than it had ever been. These factors, especially the effect of Darwin’s theories on the public psyche, legitimized (in an artistic sense) and strengthened the effect of Beard’s use of animals to depict Wall Street. Paintings such as Beard’s  “The Bulls and Bears in the Market,” evoked the animalistic nature of Wall Street and provided the general population with a familiar metaphor to describe their inhibitions towards what went on there.  Much of Wall Street was simply not understood by late 19th century society. When such confusion was coupled with the very real, substantive economic instability at the time, Wall Street was even further shrouded under a veil of mystery and suspicion.  The animal metaphors used in art and cartoons acted as the best way for society to express their insecurities and, furthermore, were “unwelcome reminders that culture and society had yet to transcend the animal, ill-contained and eternally lurking beneath the surface.” (33)

Word Count (304)

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2 thoughts on ““Party Animals: Thomas Nast, William Holbrook Beard, and the Bears of Wall Street” (Model Abstract)”

  1. It feels like to me, late 19th century America is nearly always skipped over in history lectures. It interests me how most of America was ignorant to the workings of Wall St. at the time, but I find it very easy to believe Burns’ claim to the reason of using animals to depict a Wall St. scene. I would like to have known the exact date of the painting just to get a better sense of the time (according to google, it’s 1879). I also would now like to know the next few examples of using animals to depict this sort of scene, and how they may or may not have been influenced by this painting.

  2. I like the connection made between science (Darwin) and economics/politics. While many subjects become intertwined such as math and science or art and literature, finding connections between these two subjects is rare and novel point to make. I have known about the expression when it comes to a bull or bear market, but it is interesting to me now to know where that comparison may have come from. Since bulls and bear are still very prominent when discussing Wall Street today, I wonder how that animal analogy has evolved over time, or if it has stayed relatively static since its creation.

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