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"The artist, William Trego, is a son of J.K. Trego, formerly of Philadelphia, a portrait and animal painter of much more than a local reputation, and one of the finest colorists in America. Of course the son has had from his childhood the advantage of the careful training of his father in all the technique of art, and his wonderful skill in drawing and coloring is, therefore, both hereditary and acquired."
-The Cleveland Press, 1879
During the mid and late nineteenth century, William Trego and his father, Jonathan, painted in and around Bucks County. Although Jonathan and William Trego were both successful painters, they perceived their roles as artists differently. Jonathan regarded himself as a tradesman, while his son, William, considered himself an artiste. Their disparate attitudes towards their careers reflect changes in the artist's role in society.
Shaped by his Quaker origins, Jonathan Trego worked diligently at his art, humbly providing a service to his community. For Jonathan, portraiture was a craft, much like the other decorative arts.
William held a loftier sense of himself as an artist. Extremely ambitious, he studied in France and specialized in history painting, traditionally the most prestigious of genres. William's ambition resulted in part from the increasing professionalization of art in the late nineteenth century. At this time, the notion of the artist as an aloof and moody genius emerged. A tortured and eccentric man, and ultimately a suicide victim, William conformed to this image, which his father, a successful and creative member of his community, would have deplored.
"There is probably not an American History book which doesn't have [a] Trego picture in it."
-Edwin A. Peeples
Trego's monumental canvases celebrate American military history of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. His achievement was extraordinary in part because he painted in spite of an almost complete paralysis of his hands, which was caused by early childhood illness or injury. Trego only had the use of his left thumb and forefinger. With those fingers, he placed the brush in his paralyzed right hand, then used the left hand to push the right across the canvas.
Perhaps because his paralysis limited his physical capacity, Trego painted scenes of action and glory, capturing the vitality that he was denied in life. He favored military subjects, especially scenes from the Civil War. Trego's paintings are best known for their precise renderings of figures, charging horses, and military paraphernalia. His work accentuates action, capturing horses bounding in mid-stride, and passion, sensitively rendering soldiers' emotions in the heat of battle.
The poignant heroism of the Civil War captured Trego's imagination and filled his canvases. Straining to convey the intensity of its battles with vivid realism, Trego watched cavalry in action, studied military paraphernalia, and made several preliminary sketches of each subject. Painting his soldiers and their accouterments in minute and brightly colored detail against a gray-blue ground, Trego rendered dramatic scenes.
Trego was among the last American artists to focus on history painting. In 1883, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts attempted to revive interest in this genre. Because all the submissions were weak, the Academy awarded Trego's The March to Valley Forge, December 16, 1777 a silver medal. Deeming this practice unfair, Trego unsuccessfully sued the Academy. The scandal surrounding Trego's lawsuit further dimmed the genre's glory.
Education and Training
The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1880-1882
Academie Julian, Paris, France, 1887-1890
Teachers and Influences
Studied with Jonathan K. Trego, his father, c. 1875
Studied under Thomas Eakins, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Thomas Anshultz
Studied under Tony Robert-Fleury and William Adolphe Bouguereau at the Academie Julian, Paris, France
Connection to Bucks County
Although Trego only lived briefly in Bucks County, he accepted commissions from its residents throughout his career. Born in Yardley, Trego, who was esteemed for his history painting, was commissioned in 1899 by the Bucks County Historical Society to paint The Rescue of the Colors, a large canvas portraying Bucks County's 104th Pennsylvania regiment valiantly defending their flag during the Civil War Battle of Fair Oaks.
Colleagues and Affiliations
For five years, Trego mentored landscape painter Walter Emerson Baum, bequeathing to him the contents of his studio. Trego's father, Jonathan Trego, briefly lived and worked in Bucks County. His cousin, Edward Trego, an occasional resident of Doylestown, painted landscapes in watercolor as a hobby during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Major Group Exhibitions
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1879-1902 (intermittent years)
Paris Salon, Paris, France, 1889, 1890
World's Fair, Chicago, Illinois, 1893
Cotton States Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia, 1895
Michener Art Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania
The Rescue of Colors was commissioned by General W.W. Davis, president of Bucks County Historical Society in 1899. It was later purchased by John Wanamaker and donated to the Bucks County Historical Society.
Toppan Prize, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1882
Temple Prize Silver Medal, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1883
American Art Society, Silver Medal, 1902
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