A Brief Biography of William B.T. Trego (1858-1909) by Joseph Eckhardt
William Brooke Thomas Trego was born in Yardley, Pennsylvania on 15 September 1858, to artists Jonathan K. Trego (1817-1901) and Emily Thomas (1820-1874). Around the age of two, Trego was left partially paralyzed by an accident, an overdose of medication, or a bout with polio. Whatever the cause, his hands were severely crippled and he walked with a limp. That he became such an artist was truly remarkable.
Even as a child, William exhibited natural talent for drawing and his father encouraged him. Eventually, his father took him into his studio as an apprentice and gave him formal training. Trego developed a deep interest in painting military subjects; the American Civil War and Franco-Prussian War became his specialities. His work was so accomplished that he was celebrated for his work while still in his teens. In 1879, William enjoyed his first great success when his painting, The Charge of Custer at the Battle of Winchester, earned rave reviews in the press.
Later that year, William enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia where he studied under Thomas Eakins. His second success came at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1882 where he was awarded the first Toppan Prize for his work, Battery of Light Artillery en Route. The following year he competed for the Academy's Temple Prize, submitting the painting for which he is best known today, The March to Valley Forge. The competition was badly bungled by the jury assembled to judge the paintings. No one was given the first or second prizes. Trego was given the third prize silver medal instead of the $3000 first prize. He sued the Academy and the case eventually reached the State Supreme Court which ruled against the artist.
Between 1884 and 1887, Trego--now living in the Philadelphia suburb of North Wales with his father and step-mother--turned out a large number of high quality Civil War battle scenes. All were well received and purchased by collectors. In late 1887 William went to Paris to study at the famed Academie Julian. There he trained under Bouguereau and Tony-Fleury, and spent many hours in museums studying French history painting. He exhibited at both the 1889 and 1890 Salons. His 1889 Salon painting, The Color Guard, included his self-portrait and was highly regarded.
Upon his return to the U.S. in 1890, William did not enjoy the kind of success he expected. His first major commission was for illustrations for a massive twelve volume book on the United States Army and Navy. Throughout the 1890s, his military works were less and less sought after by collectors. History painting was rapidly declining in popularity. He was forced to paint portraits and genre paintings to maintain himself financially. Many of the works of this decade were of outstanding quality, but they did not bring him the fame, recognition, or financial rewards he so badly desired.
In 1898, Trego was asked to paint the Civil War exploits of Pennsylvania's 104th Volunteer Regiment. The resulting large format work, The Rescue of the Colors, is today one of the most stunning examples of his work. Sadly, this painting, which should have resulted in a resurgence of interest in his work and a renewal of his career, brought him only grief when he was refused permission to exhibit it or reproduce the image.
Jonathan K. Trego died in early 1901. William's beloved step-mother, Delia Trego, died in 1907. The artist found himself alone, financially destitute, and in ill health. To supplement his income, he sought work as an illustrator and began giving lessons in his studio. One of his students in those years was Walter Emerson Baum of Bucks County, destined to become a successful artist in his own right. Trego turned out one last large painting in 1908, an interpretation of the famed Chariot Race from the novel, Ben Hur. It was shown at the Academy of Design exhibit in New York in 1909, but excited little interest and did not sell.
On June 24th, 1909, Trego was found unconscious on the floor of his room by his housekeeper. By the time the doctor arrived, he was dead. Though no one ever figured out exactly what had happened, the coroner ruled that his death had resulted from "some unknown poison," and that William T. Trego had in fact committed suicide.
For more information on this artist or to comment on his story visit the website; www.williamttrego.org and contact Joseph Eckhardt.
Joseph Eckhardt is Emeritus Professor at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, PA. He has done extensive research on William B.T. Trego. He is the curator who has organized an exhibit, publication and catalogue raisonne project that took place from June 4th, 2011 through Oct. 2nd, 2011 at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA on the works of William Trego.
If anyone has any knowledge on the works of William Trego, particularly The Charge Of Custer At The Battle of Winchester, 1879, please contact Joseph at the above website address.
I would like to dedicate with respect this page of my website to William Trego. He was my fifth cousin, four times removed.
Fine Art By: Douglas Trego Website Design By: Douglas Trego/STIPPLE Copyright 2008, All Rights Reserved Created: 6-28-2008