CATLIN, George (1796-1872). Plate No. 21 Ball Players

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Hand-colored lithograph heightened with gum arabic by John McGahey (active 1835–1855) after George Catlin (1796-1872) printed by Day & Haghe

From the first edition of Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio. Hunting Scenes and Amusements of the Rocky Mountains and Praries of America. From Drawings and Notes of the Author, made during Eight Years' Travel amongst Forty-Eight of the Wildest and Most Remote Tribes of Savages in North America. London: Geo. Catlin, Egyptian Hall, 1844

Paper dimensions: approximately 16 ½ x 22 ¾ inches

Catlin provided the following description to accompany this subject:

Plate No. 21
BALL PLAYERS.

Three distinguished Ball Players, portraits from life, in the ball-play dress. No. 1. TUL-LOCK-CHISH-KO (He who Drinks the Juice of the Stone) A Choctaw. No. 2. WEE-CHUSH-TA-DOO-TA (The Red Man.) A Sioux from the Upper Missouri. No. 3. ah-no-je-nahge (He who Stands on both Sides). A Sioux brave, from the Missouri.

In devoting a few of the last pages of this work to some of the principal AMUSEMENTS of the North American Indians, I have commenced with the beautiful game of Ball, decidedly the favorite and most exciting game of the American tribes. Amongst the fourth-eight tribes I have visited, I find the game of Ball everywhere played; and to my great surprise, by tribes separated by a space of three thousand miles, played very nearly in the same manner; the chief difference consisting in the different construction of the ball-sticks used --the modes of laying out the ground-- and painting and ornamenting their bodies. In most of the tribes there are certain similar regulations as to dress, ornaments, &c., which no one is allowed to depart from; and in the three portraits given in the illustration here, these peculiar and general modes are all set forth.

Amongst all the tribes I have visited in their primitive condition, where their native modes are unchanged by civilized innovations, I find that every player must enter the play entirely denuded with the exception of their breech-cloths and ornamented belts around their waists; their head-dresses, tails, and manes made of horse-hair or beautiful quills: leaving all their limbs free to act without the least incumbrance of dress. And that they may feel and appreciate more to their advantage the ground that they run upon, they uniformly enter the lists to run in this desperate chase with the naked foot.

Amongst the Choctaws, Creeks, and various other tribes in the southern latitudes of America, they play the game with two ball-sticks; each player, as represented in the first of these figures, carrying a stick in each hand, with an oblong hoop or racket at the end, between which, bringing the two together, he catches the ball as he runs, and throws it home to his goal if possible.

With the Sious, Ojibbeways, and other numerious tribes living one or two thousand miles to the north, though the rules of the game are in other respects the same, the players use but one stick, firmly held in both hands, with quite a round hoop at the end, in which the ball is taken with great certainty, as it is flying in the air, and thrown and almost incredible distance. This mode is well explained in the second and third figures in this plate, portraits of two of the most distinguished ball-players of the Sioux tribe.  As illustrated in these figures, great pains are taken to ornament their naked limbs with a verity of forms and curios devices with red and other colours, oftentimes giving them the appearance of being clad in the most picturesque and vari-coloured costume; and in many instances, for the easy recognition of the players on their respective sides, those of one party are painted with white clay, rendering the mingled and darting throng one of the most picturesque and pleasing scenes imaginable.  And yet, adding still more to the pictorial effect, as well as to the grace of this beautiful scene, each player has attached to his waist, and rising out from under his ornamented belt, a waving tail, made of white horse-hair of --vari-coloured quills --or of long prairie grass, (as seen in the figures in the plate,) which are lifted and gracefully float in the air as the players run, giving, with not a little of the grotesque, a decided life and beauty to these thrilling scenes, where hundreds are often struggling together for the mastery.

George Catlin (1796-1872)

George Catlin was the earliest great artist to travel extensively among the Plains Indians of North America and visually record their customs and artifacts. Through the important body of paintings and graphics he created and his carful written observations he sought to persuade his contemporaries that Native American culture should be honored and preserved.  

In 1830 Catlin began his first journey up the Missouri River accompanying General William Clark on a diplomatic mission into Native American territory. His travel was inspired by his longstanding interest in Native American culture and by his observation of a delegation of Native Americans who were on their way to Washington, D.C. In doing so left behind earlier careers as a Philadelphia attorney and a portrait miniaturist. His goal was perhaps best expressed in the preface to the first edition of his North American Indian Portfolio: "The history and customs of such a people, preserved by pictorial illustrations, are themes worthy the lifetime of one man, and nothing short of the loss of my life shall prevent me from visiting their country and becoming their historian."

St. Louis became Catlin’s base of operations for five trips he took between 1830 and 1836, eventually visiting fifty tribes, the Pawnee, Omaha, Ponca, Mandan, Hidatsa, Cheyenne, Crow, Assiniboine, and Blackfeet among them.

The artist’s hundreds of portraits, scenes, and landscapes and extensive collection of Indian artifacts he accumulated on his excursions became famous as Catlins “Indian Gallery", when it started touring the United States in 1837 and prior to its London debut two years later.

Having established a name for himself with the success of the “Indian Gallery”, Catlin focused his attention on finishing his first book, The Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians… which first appeared in the autumn of 1841. This book was to become one of the most important works on American Indians published in the 19th century. Catlin's project filled a great need.  Following Lewis & Clark's celebrated expedition up the Missouri River into the Pacific Northwest, Europeans read avidly of the sights and experiences of the voyage.  They traced the route followed by the explorers, using the map that accompanied the wildly popular printed volumes on the journey.  

Lacking, however, from the accounts of the expedition of Lewis and Clark was pictorial documentation and its audience (both American and European) were unable to visualize the journey. This lacuna meant that the people, landscapes, and customs of the vast American frontier remained abstract ideas, much less vividly imaginable to anyone who had not personally experienced the voyage. When first issued in 1844, Catlin’s portfolio presented animated, colorful, sympathetic views of Native Americans finally filled the void of imagery.  

Its arrival brought about the ability for Europeans and Americans to visualize the people and customs of whom they had read so extensively, and to gain a level of respect for the Native Americans, so often feared, misunderstood or misrepresented.  The artist's stunning lithographs ranged from portraits to depictions of tribal ceremonies, from the anecdotal to the idealized.  Catlin appealed to his readers with the thrill of the hunt and the mystery of ritual, and conveyed his respect for his subjects masterfully.  The immediacy of his images is irresistible, drawing viewers into the scenes and portraits with unprecedented intimacy.  But even when Catlin issued the North American Indian Portfolio, just fifteen years after his expedition, his crusade to preserve America's "Noble Savage" was failing.  The Indians were beginning to give way to the expansion of the American frontier and to European disease.  Because most of Catlin's paintings and collections were destroyed by fire or neglect, his lithographs remain the principal medium by which his message was conveyed, and they have come to hold even greater significance today than when they were first published.

Description compiled by Erik Brockett who is pleased to provide additional information relating to this or other examples of the work of George Catlin available at Arader Galleries. He can be contacted at erikbrockett@aradergalleries.com