During the middle of the nineteenth century Thomas Le Clear excelled both as a genre and portrait painter, first in Buffalo and then in New York City. His genre pieces often depict children interacting within the adult world and are characterized by closely observed details set within well-structured compositions, such as that seen in High-Jack-Game.
Thomas Le Clear exhibited High-Jack-Game at the National Academy of Design in 1861, the year the hostilities began between northern and southern states. Like other prominent genre painters, Le Clear chose subject matter that reflected contemporary concerns about the status of African Americans. In 1859 Eastman Johnson exhibited Old Kentucky Home --Negro Life in the South (Robert L. Stuart Collection, on permanent loan to the New-York Historical Society) at the National Academy of Design and in 1862 completed A Ride for Liberty --The Fugitive Slaves (Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn). In the early 1860s Winslow Homer also began to address the status of African Americans in his wood engravings for Harper's Weekly. These painters' interest in depicting such scenes reflected prevailing attitudes that American artists should draw inspiration for their subject matter from everyday life.
High-Jack-Game depicts three individuals -- a young newspaper boy and his companion playing High Jack as well as an older African-American man, who may be identified as a house painter or whitewasher from the bucket and brush at his side. Le Clear portrays the group with care, cleverly arranging the composition to allow the viewer to see one hand of cards. The other boy watches intently, waiting for his play, thereby heightening the anticipation of the scene. The African American does not participate in the card game, but watches from the side, perhaps uninvited, or unwilling to play.