This painting first appeared in 1927 at a showing of Indians and OtherPaintings at the Traxel Art Galleries in Cincinnati. Its further history is not known until it found a place on the wall of the Springville Museum of Art in Utah during its ninth annual Painters of the West exhibition in 1939. It was purchased from that show by the eighth-grade class of Springville Junior High School and presented to the museum as a gift. The students had paid $600 for the canvas, and it was noted as the most expensive painting in the museum’s collections at the time.
Playing the Game is a complex work. A group of seven Pueblo men, representing most of Sharp’s models, have gathered to gamble and focus intently on the game in play. The circular window in Sharp’s studio sheds light on two of the men, otherwise the room is illuminated only by soft light from perhaps a lantern. The group is buttressed on the right by two Pueblo effigy dolls representing local indigenous spiritual beliefs, and on the left by a crucifix with the sacrificed Christ looking down on the gamblers. The bettors totally ignore both sacred symbols as they concentrate keenly on outcome of their earthly wagers.
Tensions had been high in Taos earlier in the decade when the Bureau of Indian Affairs had attempted to impose restrictions on Native religious and social practices. Many of the artists and writers of Taos had creatively and overtly presented bold resistance to government pressures and had been successful in their efforts. Sharp’s message that the Indians of Taos were more interested in their corporeal pastimes than on either religious system is perhaps a mild way of saying that neither dogma had persisted.