CATLIN, George (1796-1872). Plate No. 23 Ball Play

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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

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Catlin provided the following description to accompany this subject:

Plate No. 23.

Having in the two former illustrations and their chapters, explained to the readers the costume and preliminaries of the Ball-play, I here introduce them to the ball-play ground, where five or six hundred youths, with chastened and oiled limbs, and with empty stomachs, as I have described, are met upon the ground and actually engaged in the play. And here I must falter; and faltering, must apologise for the weakness of my pencil in endeavoring to pourtray a scene like this. And yet in a little kindness to my own pencil, I would venture the opinion that scenes like these, with hundreds, and sometimes with thousands, of theses proud and emulous youth, with their graceful and denuded limbs, darting and almost flying over the enamelled prairies, are entirely beyond the reach of art, and the payers, in their beautiful gambols and varied leaps for the ball, afforded models for the painter or sculptor, equal to those that inspired the hands and soul of the artist, in the Olympian Games or the Roman Forum.

At the hour of the morning designate for the commencement of the play, the young men, having completed their dancing, appeared on the ground, each with ball-sticks in his hands, and in all other respects prepared for the play, which commenced, about nine o'clock, by the old men, the judges of the play, throwing up the ball, at the firing of a gun, exactly at the point half-way between the two byes, around which were stationed an equal number of players from each side, who instantly commenced the scuffle for the ball as it descended; each party endeavoring to catch it between their ball-sticks and to throw it through their own goal, which, when successfully done, counted one for the game. Around either bye, also, there were placed a numerous party of each side; the one endeavoring to force the ball through, and the other doing their utmost to resist and drive it back to their own side of the ground.

In the illustration here given, I have endeavoured to represent the play at the moment when the ball has been thrown, and is falling beyond the bye, where the players are assembling in a mass to meet it as it falls. The game is generally 100; and owning to the great difficulty of getting the ball home and passing it through their byes with so many to resist it, each of these struggles occupies some time for its decision, and consequently the game continues the most (and sometimes the whole) of the day, before it is decided; and each party at the number of 95 being allowed to "set the game" to a higher number, often adds much to its tedious length. Whenever the ball is passed through the byes of either party it is announced all over the ground by a simultaneous bark or yelp; and the ball is thrown "home" to the judges, who start it again from the centre, when similar successive struggles and excitements intensely ensue, allowing the players but one minute or so to rest.

In the play here represented, every player was dressed alike; i.e. divested of all dress except the girdle and the tail before described, and the devices which they had painted upon their naked limbs, beautifully diversified with white and red clay. In the midst of these almost inconceivable scuffles and struggles for the ball, when they are tripping, and throwing, and foiling each other in every possible manner, the women are occasionally seen taking an active part in the play, although they are not allowed to use the ball-stick, it being too sacred on that day even for their touch. Their mode of joining in the play, however, is this: each woman who has her goods at stake, and thereby a direct interest in the play, is permitted to use all the stimulant to the scene that lies in her power, in the only mode allowed her on the occasion. She goes to the woods, and having procured a bunch of whips of some two or three feet in length, which she ties together at the butt ends, and carries in her right hand, she adjusts her dress for running, so that the has the free use of her nether limbs; and the moment the ball is started, she sets off in the darting throng--yelling and screaming as she runs--folowing up her husband, who is in search of the ball; and at every moment in the day when she can overtake him, while she reminds him of the value of their goods that are at stake and of the importance of exerting every nerve to protect them, she lashes him over the naked shoulders, and often to that degree that the blood will be seen trickling down over his back, drawn in the affectionate hints this given by his wife, lest he should forget to exert himself to the fullest extent, for manly protection of their mutual interest, by desperately playing to save their property at sake.

The Indian communities in America are perhaps the last of all on earth in which a woman would undertake to beat her husband; but by the custom of all tribes, on the occasion of a ball-play, the woman who have goods at stake, and whose husbands are engaged in the play, have the privilege allowed them of chastising their husbands as severely as they please, whenever they can overtake them, giving additional stimulant to their exertions, (whilst they are led on by a high ambition for fame and the world’s goods,) by driving them on with the lash, which is dealt out without mercy, by the most cruel and unsparing hands.

By the same custom of the country, also, which gives the woman this privilege, she is protected; the husband who would resent superfluous blows on this occasion would be branded with perpetual disgrace; and when they come, his only way to avoid them is to rush forward for the ball, and effect his escape by playing the most desperate game. To this second stimulus in the play, which is continually upon the tracks of the payers, and keeping them constantly in motion, may be in great measure attributed that indescribable excitement and action which we witness in these scenes: and, from the fury-like manner in which the wife is often seen following up and flagellating her husband, one easily and naturally imagens (as probably is often the case) that the poor woman, who has this privilege but seldom in her life, may be making the most of it, as the means of settling up some old standing account between herself and her husband, which she has no other mode of liquidating, and to which he must quietly submit, unless he keeps out of her way.

Such I offer as a feeble description of this beautiful and exciting game; and merely further observe, that such are its fascinations amongst the various tribes, and so highly is it prized by them, that in each and every tribe, there are, as well as aspirants for fame in war and in the chase, those whose hearts throb only for the envied notoriety of being reputed the most distinguished ball-players in the tribe; and for that distinction, ready to hazard their lives as freely as in the vicissitudes of battle. The three portraits in Plate No. 21, and which I have already described, were all of young men of this stamp, who seemed to be ambitious for little else than the reputation of being first in their tribes, in the game of ball; and the second figure in the plate is a peculiarly a good illustration of the assertion here made. This young man, WEE-CHUSH-TA-DOO-TA (The Red Man), whose portrait I painted after he had played in a desperate game at the Falls of St. Anthony, reputed the most determined and successful player of the Sioux tribe, has, as I was informed by the chiefs, for several of the last games he has been engaged in, taken the most solemn oath, whilst entering upon the play, that he would not survive if his side were to be beaten; thus desperately resolving to leave the ground, exulting in victory, or to have his lifestyle body upon it, a sacrifice by his own hand and his own knife: and I have not a doubt of the certain execution of his stern resolve in such an event.

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