Viewing Our Sorrow and Sadness Differently - The Story of Thomas Nast and a Landscape Painting

The famous Thomas Nast, so famous that we no longer know him over a hundred years after his death, lives on in the creations he made.  He gave us what we think of as Santa Claus (jolly, fat, red outfit with white trim, and fluffy white beard), the Republican elephant, the Democratic Donkey, and the goatee of Uncle Sam.

At a public exhibition, he awed a crowd with his drawing skills.  He took a landscape canvas, approximately six feet long by two feet wide, and placed it horizontally upon an easel before his audience.  On it he worked from left to write and rapidly painted a landscape.  In quick succession appeared green meadows, with cattle, fields of grain, the farmhouse and surrounding buildings, with orchard near, while over all the bright sky, with fleecy clouds, seemed to pour heaven’s benediction upon the scene below.  At the time, and for some still, it was a scene of all that the human flesh desires, a house on a piece of farmland flourishing in bounty.

When he reached the end on the right side of the canvas, Nast did not need to touch up anything. The artist held his brush, stepped aside to show the crowd his work, and received a hearty applause from the amazed audience.

At the end of the ovation, Mr. Nast stepped back to the canvas.  He apparently was not done.
Taking darker colors, he applied them most recklessly to the canvas. Out went the bright sky. “Did you ever see a picture like this?” he asked, as he blotted out meadows, fields, orchards, and buildings. Up, down, and across passed the artist’s hand, until the landscape was totally obliterated, and nothing but what appeared to just be a glob of colors, such as a child might make, remained.

Then, with a more satisfied look, he stepped aside, laying down his brushes, as if to say, “It is finished.”
No applause came from the perplexed audience as they did not know how to respond to Nast ruining his beautiful picture in front of them.  Nast then ordered the stage attendants to place an elaborate frame around the ruined work of art and to turn it to a vertical position. The mystery was revealed.  Before the audience stood a painting of a beautiful waterfall, the water plunging over a precipice of dark rock, skirted with trees and lush vegetation. It is needless to say that the audience burst into rounds of applause.

And in our lives a greater Artist is at work. We paint our landscapes. How beautiful we make them! All manner of earthly prosperity, with bright skies above. We imagine our sketching perfect, but an unseen Hand finishes more grandly our crude designs.

Houses and yards, cars and material goods, disappear. Yes, our portrait of loved faces is blotted out. We cry, “Hold, hold!  Stop, please Stop!” but the Hand that applies the darker colors moves relentlessly on. We weep and mourn over our ruined paintings because we have not the true angle of vision.

At last God turns the canvas, and there appears a work not for time but for eternity.

While Mr. Nast was spoiling the landscape to produce the falls, he might have echoed the words of Jesus to his disciples to the mystified audience, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand” John 13:7 (ESV).  What puzzled the audience was plain to Nast. In each destructive stroke upon the landscape painting he saw a stroke creating a new painting; and what might appear strange and troubling to us, is most clear to Him who desires to save us from being “conformed to this world,” and will help us be transformed by the renewal of our minds, that we “may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.”

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” Romans 12:1-2 (ESV).


This story, The Ruined Painting, is from Signs of the Times, February 7, 1895; via November 2005 Signs of the Times E-mail Newsletter.  I found it here.  I could not find the painting described, so I cannot even verify if the story is true.  But the point is true nonetheless.  I took liberty in modernizing the language, adding, and removing sentences.