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Winter, George Indians Playing the Moccasin Game, No Date


George Winter, the youngest of 12 children, was born in England. His family was well educated, and their home had a gallery where he often listened to people talk about art. The town itself contained many collections of celebrated paintings. Having decided to become an artist, Winter spent four years in London. He arrived in New York City in 1830 and studied at the National Academy of Design. He went to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1836 and to Logansport, Indiana, in May 1837, where he spent the next 14 years. He became a U.S. citizen in 1841.

Apparently he was drawn to Logansport by a desire to record the appearance of the Potawatomi and Miami Indians who were being removed beyond the Mississippi River following their relinquishment of their native lands to the U.S. government. Winter had never seen an American Indian before his arrival at Logansport, and his journal records his reaction: “The Indian as I found him was not the one I had seen through the imagination or fancy; he was clothed in varied colored draperies, each in accordance with his own peculiar conceit. Instead of the shaved head and scalp lock towering from the center of the cranium, his head was wrapped around with a shawl of many colors, turban fashion, a la Turk, presenting a picturesque appearance.” Winter’s paintings are an extremely valuable historical record of the customs of these Indiana Indian tribes.

Winter also painted portraits of local settlers and landscapes from sketches he made along the Wabash River, often with groups of American Indians painted into them. In his book Pioneer Painters, the art historian Wilbur Peat says of Winter’s landscapes, “Tinged with an air of romanticism in both composition and color, and planned to bring out the most picturesque aspects of the region, they became very popular, finding their way into many local [Lafayette] homes.”

In 1850 Winter opened a studio in Lafayette and painted commissioned portraits. In 1852 he started his “Distributions”: he would hold a public showing of a group of paintings, sell chances for one or two dollars, and then hold a drawing to determine the winners of the paintings. In 1874 he went to California and made numerous sketches. He died only a week after he returned to Lafayette in 1876.

  • Indians Playing the Moccasin Game, n.d.
  • 34″ x 42″
  • Indiana State Museum and Historical Sites
  • Keywords: paintings, narrative, oil on canvas
  • Subjects: outdoors, people, American Indians, men, women, children, hats, trees, games, domestic animals

According to Winter’s notation on the back of the canvas, this painting was “Originally sketched at Kee-wau-nay Village, 1837, when Col. A. C. Pepper held his councils with the Pot-ta-wat-to-mies of the Wabash, Indiana.”

The composition draws the eye into the scene because it forms a perpendicular ellipse, rather like the world itself, going into the third dimension. Notice the clothing of the American Indians, which was influenced by the French traders and trappers in the area. The French traded with the Indians, providing them with the brightly colored silk that they wrapped turban-style around their heads.

The moccasin game is a game of chance similar to the shell game, in which a pea is hidden under one of three nut shells. The player must guess the correct shell to win. In the moccasin game four miniature moccasins are used instead of shells, and a small stone is the object hidden. There are four players instead of just one, and each participant takes a turn at guessing the right moccasin. Also called Bullet, this gambling game was so widespread that a law was enacted to prohibit playing it. Offenses were punished with fines. The game was borrowed from the Delaware Indians.

Some Points To Consider

  • Ask students if they think the painted figures agree with George Winter’s written description of the American Indians at Kee-wau-nay Village? Why or why not? (Art 4.4.1)
  • Ask students if they think the players seem subdued. Ask them to describe how Winter might have used movement to depict a much more animated game. Have them list the art elements used by Winter to depict clothing. (Art 4.3.2)