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Was William T. Trego America’s Greatest Disabled Artist?

One of the biggest problems with lists is that with lists come labels. A list of African-American artists or women artists already sets them up as different (and perhaps less, somehow) than artists on another list. But sometimes lists also celebrate difference and how individuals overcome challenges and thrive in a society that can be less than totally accepting. Few people know the name of the disabled 19th century American artist William T. Trego, even though one of his paintings, The March to Valley Forge, December 16, 1777, remains a staple of American history textbooks looking to illustrate one of the great turning points of the American Revolutionary War. In So Bravely and So Well: The Life and Art of William T. Trego by Joseph P. Eckhardt, we learn Trego’s remarkable tale of overcoming the effects of childhood polio, which left his hands paralyzed, to attend art school and even study in Paris in his pursuit of a career as a painter, all during an era when the physically disabled were perceived as mentally disabled, too, and in which the idea of accessibility for all remained nearly a century in the future.

Eckhardt, a professor of history specializing in Pennsylvania history, himself had never heard of Trego or his art before the summer of 2007. Once Eckhardt learned the outline of Trego’s story, however, he hungered to learn more. William Brooke Thomas Trego was born in 1858 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. When Trego was 18 months old and suffering teething pains, a doctor prescribed the common 19th century compound of calomel (also known as mercurous chloride). Young William soon became ill. For the rest of William’s life his hands would be horribly twisted and useless at the ends of weak and flailing arms and his feet would drag as he walked. Although calomel could lead to mercury poisoning, experts today reading Trego’s case believe he suffered from polio, a disease poorly understood before the 20th century. Despite his infirmity, Trego followed the example of his artist father and drew at a young age by developing a system in which he forced the pencil into one hand and guided it with the other. (Although pictures of Trego survive, he always took care to hide his hands. Douglas Trego, an ancestor of William, drew an artist’s rendition of William’s painting hand for the book based on written accounts.)

Scenes of battles and armies in action soon captured Williams’s imagination. As a young boy, he would hear relatives recount tales of adventure from the recently concluded American Civil War. Companion pieces such as Battery—Halt! and Battery, Forward! demonstrate themes that would characterize Trego’s art for the rest of his life: painstaking attention to minute detail, a love for horses and the power they represented, and a flair for the fleeting, dramatic moment of action caught and frozen forever. Although Trego couldn’t ride a horse himself, he loved to be placed on them and imagine flying away. This identification with raw, animal freedom can be seen in the paintings. “With their wild eyes and open mouths flecked with foam,” Eckhardt writes of the equine stars of Battery—Halt!, “the horses reveal the chaos and terror of battle in a way the faces of the soldiers do not.”

“His battlefields were the sheets of paper spread before him,” Eckhardt writes of the young William transforming tales of battle into pictures. “[O]nly there could he charge and gallop and ride like the wind, waving a saber or flag.” Often Trego joined the charge by painting his own portrait into the fray. In The Color Guard (French Dragoons Charging) (shown above), Trego placed himself in the center of the action by giving his face to the horseman bearing the flag (which a recently struck and dying compatriot to his right salutes with his final breath). Limited by his limbs, Trego found limitless freedom in his imagination.

At its heart, So Bravely and So Well: The Life and Art of William T. Trego is a love story—the love story of a father and son. Jonathan K. Trego believed in his son William and trained him as an artist with no concessions to his disability. For the rest of his life, William made no concessions to his condition, even to the point of fiercely refusing any help as he would struggle carrying his painting supplies. At a time when the physically disabled were seen as mentally deficient, too, Jonathan’s “profound leap of faith,” as Eckhardt calls it, speaks of a profound love as well. “Had William Trego been born into any other family,” Eckhardt concludes, “we may never have heard his name.” William’s loving portrait of his father (unquestionably William’s finest surviving portrait) stands as a lasting token of their bond.

Bolstered by this family support, William enrolled in 1879 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the most prestigious art school in America at the time. Although little is known of these years, Trego later recalled the “sarcasm and neglect” of Thomas Eakins, the driving force behind the academy’s revolutionary new curriculum. Whereas others shriveled before Eakins, the indomitable Trego thrived, even winning an award given by the academy. (Eakins’ prize student—and later wife—Susan Macdowell came in second.) After earning enough money with sales of his works, William realized the dream of every young American painter of the time—to study in Paris. While studying at the Academie Julian, William met fellow countrymen such as Robert Henri and Alexander Stirling Calder (father of the Calder of the mobiles). While recounting William’s enjoyment of the Parisian nightlife, Eckhardt allows himself to wonder if Trego ever met another artist who overcame his physical challenges in his art—Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Unfortunately, the public’s taste for history painting disappeared just as Trego developed his talents. Eckhardt recounts Trego’s long descent into obscurity as he struggled to make a living as a painting and attempted more profitable genres such as religious works and tales from literature. Faced with the prospect of giving up his home to live with a relative who could take care of him in his last years, William T. Trego asserted his fierce independence one last time and took his own life in 1908. A student of William’s took away as much as he could carry from the chaos that was Trego’s studio, with the rest scattered among relatives and to the winds of time—thus seemingly sealing the artist’s fate until now.

While researching American Revolutionary War uniforms and other details for his painting The March to Valley Forge, December 16, 1777, William T. Trego couldn’t help but wonder why his task was so difficult. “It has always seemed strange to me that nobody has ever written a book on this subject for the benefit of the future,” William later wrote. After reading Joseph P. Eckhardt’s So Bravely and So Well: The Life and Art of William T. Trego, you’ll also come away wondering why nobody’s written a book on this subject for the benefit of the future. Although a great artist in his own right and a prime example of the fate of many artists of his time, William T. Trego’s significance for today rests in his ability to overcome the challenges not only of his own body, but also of his own society, both in terms of physical obstacles and attitudinal obstacles. It took the love and faith of an artist father and supportive family to guide William into the world, but it was all his doing once he got there. “[H]is soul is aglow when he paints,” a newspaperman wrote of Trego in 1901, “and bodily limitations have faded into distant insignificant nothingness.” You’ll find your soul glowing, too, after reading So Bravely and So Well: The Life and Art of William T. Trego and agree that bodily limitations (and not those challenged by them) should fade into “distant insignificant nothingness.”

[Image:William T. Trego (1858-1909),The Color Guard (French Dragoons Charging), 1890, oil on canvas, H. 35 x W. 45.75 inches, West Point Museum, United States Military Academy, West Point, New York.]

[Many thanks to the James A. Michener Art Museum for the image above and to the University of Pennsylvania Press for providing me with a review copy of So Bravely and So Well: The Life and Art of William T. Trego by Joseph P. Eckhardt.]


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