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Vol. LXV, No. 31
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
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SELF-PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST ON A WHITE HORSE: In this detail from his painting, “The Color Guard,” William T. Trego has painted himself into the role of the standard-bearer leading the charge. The face is his, but not the hand clasping the flag. Both Trego’s hands were crippled, possibly from the effects of polio. “So Bravely and So Well: The Life and Art of William T. Trego” will be at the James A. Michener Art Museum through October 2.

James A. Michener Art Museum
Soldiering On: William Trego, Stephen Crane, and the Imagery of War

Stuart Mitchner

The music of the trampling feet, the sharp voices, the clanking arms of the column near him made him soar on the red wings of war. For a few moments he was sublime.

from Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage (1895)

With the new exhibit, So Bravely and So Well: The Life and Art of William T. Trego, the Michener Art Museum marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and pays tribute to an artist whose heroic personal struggle reflected his chosen setting — the field of battle. Some two years after his birth in September 1858, Trego was stricken — in effect, seriously wounded — on the eve of the conflict that would become one of the primary subjects of his art. Whatever the cause — polio, most likely — it crippled his hands.

By the time the war ended Trego was seven and already showing an interest in painting. He was 12 in 1870 when another primary subject, the Franco-Prussian War, was being fought. As a physically embattled child growing up in the aftermath of two wars, he had reason to identify with soldiers in combat, going so far as to paint himself into the center of the action in The Color Guard (shown here), where his is the face of the standard-bearing soldier on the white horse. Trego’s self-portrait in combat was accomplished when he was 30 and studying at the Académie Julian in Paris.

Trego’s Badge of Courage

Lifted above the charging, rearing horses and the flashing steel of swords in The Color Guard is the artist-soldier’s hand, whole and strong, clutching the flag, holding it high, as if it were the emblem of his art. It’s a magnificent image of the painter commanding his subject, all the more so if you know Trego’s story, since the first thing you see as you enter the gallery is a sketch of his mangled right hand done by Douglas Trego, who, because his ancestor kept the deformity hidden from photographers, had to base the drawing on a newspaper’s description of a hand “bent directly backward at the wrist with all the fingers curled under and stiffened so that they cannot be moved.”

If Trego kept his hand out of sight in photographs, he may have imposed a clandestine reference to his own badge of courage amid the chaos of another large-scale vision of battle, Battery Forward! (1887). Guest curator Joseph P. Eckhardt’s commentary mentions the “driver” on one of the Union battery’s lead horses, who, having been shot, “has lost control of his animals” while the “cannoneer closest to him reaches out to grab the reins of the clearly startled horse to bring it under control.” According to Eckhardt, Trego considered the man grabbing the reins to be “the key” to the painting. That makes sense in the context of tension, action, and forward movement, but the object at the center of this image of the chaos of war is the disfigured-looking right hand of the stricken, backward-falling “driver.”

When you see the paintings at the Michener, you will find it hard to conceive how Trego did it, even after reading the posted explanation. Apparently he worked by picking up the brush with the two functional fingers of his left hand, fitting it into his right hand, and then using the left like a rudder to guide the right hand around the canvas. What he accomplished under those conditions — the dimensions of the work, the formal intricacy, and precise detailing — is astounding. It’s hard to imagine how anyone, whatever the degree of talent or tenacity, could have managed it, as the exhibit title says, “so bravely and so well.”

Fortunately for Trego, who was born in Yardley, Pa. and spent most of his life in the Philadelphia suburb of North Wales, his parents were both artists, and as soon as he showed an interest in drawing, his father Jonathan encouraged him and presumably showed him how to circumvent the disability, taking him on as an apprentice after the family had moved to Detroit. Recognition came early, when the 20-year-old’s depiction of Custer’s Charge at the Third Battle of Winchester was hailed in the press as “one of the best historical paintings of the kind that has ever been produced by an American artist.” The fact that the painting has since been lost (as have numerous other works) fits the pattern of his life, which, in spite of his successes, was marked at nearly every stage by frustration and disappointment. In school in Detroit he was taunted by his schoolmates to the point where he burned the hair off his scalp under a gas jet in protest, which is what prompted his father to educate him in the studio.

Later, at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Trego studied under Thomas Eakins, who treated him with “sarcasm and neglect.” When his painting Battery of Light Artillery en Route (1882), which is in the exhibit, won what should have been a first-place award from the Academy, the honor was tainted by a snub from the judges. In the 1880s his Civil War paintings were admired and purchased, and he had three productive years in Paris at the end of the decade, where he placed work in the Salons of 1889 and 1890 and fell in love with a French girl. But on the homeward-bound ship, his fiancée jilted him for one of his colleagues, a public humiliation reported in the newspapers.

In the mid-1890s Trego found it hard to sell paintings and had to turn to portraits and genre pieces to make money. Forced to live with and be supported by his parents, he was hard hit by the death of his father in 1901 and his stepmother six years later. Hoping to revive his career, he borrowed money from his sister and her husband to help finance the painting of an ambitious work based on the chariot race from the best-selling novel, Ben Hur (1908). The painting, which is on view at the Michener, was exhibited in New York but received no attention. His largest canvas, it’s clearly below the level of his best work, perhaps because, as Eckhardt suggests, his “once-remarkable control of line” had been “compromised by some further physical illness, perhaps post-polio syndrome.” If you think of Trego’s career as a long, hard-fought campaign on the field of battle, where the artist soldiers on in spite of his handicap, this debacle could be called his Waterloo. His apparent suicide on June 24, 1909, occurred only months after the Ben Hur canvas was sent back from New York.

Stephen Crane’s War

The question John Berryman asks in the opening pages of his 1950 critical biography of Stephen Crane — Why did Crane spend his life “imaging [making images of], chasing, reporting, remembering War?” — could also be asked of William Trego. The answer is not hard to find. Both men were born in close proximity to the supreme event of the century, Trego three years before the onset of the Civil War, Crane ten years after it. Although Crane did not have a physical wound comparable to Trego’s crippled hand (the consumption that killed him at 28 had not yet surfaced), he saw himself, like Trego, as an embattled artist. As Thomas Beer puts it in his biography of Crane, “There had been a boy who went confidently off to make war on a world and a city,” who “had been beaten to shelter,” and “praised for his daring while his [first] novel [Maggie: A Girl of the Streets], like a retreating army, lay in unsold heaps.”

Crane was no less committed than Trego to the imagery of war, and it’s likely that Trego’s Century Magazine illustrations (such as “Hand to Hand Fighting at Spotsylvania” or “Duel Between a Union Cavalry Man and a Confederate Trooper”) were among those Crane studied when consulting Civil War material in that periodical prior to writing The Red Badge of Courage. The difference is that Crane has earned a place among the American masters, his life, as John Berryman writes, “in the heroic character of its effort” seeming “often less like an author’s than like the profound, marvelous lives of the most interesting and effective persons this country has produced, Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.”

While Crane would be the first to dismiss the idea that he belongs in such exalted company, the “heroic character” of his effort is evident when he describes a column of cavalry in his story, “The Gray Sleeve,” painting in words a scene not unlike the one Trego painted on canvas in Battery Forward: Crane’s battery “sweeping at a hard gallop” while a lieutenant “riding some yards to the right of the column, bawled furiously at the four troopers just at the rear of the colours” and “a bugler, careering along behind the captain of the troop, fought and tugged like a wrestler to keep his frantic animal from bolting far ahead of the column.” Reading Crane, you can hear a line like “innumerable hoofs thundered in a swift storm of sound” and you can see “the brown faces of the troopers” and their eyes “set like bits of flashing steel” and the foot soldiers turning their heads “to gaze at the torrent of horses and men.”

Trego has a gift for picturing horses caught in the chaos of battle. Crane takes “picturing” to another level:

“Over the noise of the scudding hoofs could be heard the creaking of leather trappings, the jingle and clank of steel, and the tense, low-toned commands or appeals of the men to their horses. And the horses were mad with the headlong sweep of this movement. Powerful underjaws bent back and straightened so that the bits were clamped as rigidly as vices upon the teeth, and glistening necks arched in desperate resistance to the hands at the bridles. Swinging their heads in rage at the granite laws of their lives which bended even their angers and their ardors to chosen directions and chosen paces, their flight was as a flight of harnessed demons.”

Trego Online

Joseph Eckhardt has provided an extensive online catalogue raisonné of William Trego’s work as a permanent extension of the Michener website, “with the hope of reaching the widest possible audience and allowing the museum the flexibility of making adjustments.” There are still dozens of William Trego’s works as yet unlocated. Anyone who owns an example of Trego’s art or who knows of possible locations of his works, should contact the William T. Trego Project at

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