When we talk about war art*, there is a tendency to focus only on the subjects. How does a painting glorify or expose the brutality of a conflict? Are the soldiers and civilians treated with dignity? Is there an element of political propaganda? We sometimes forget the artists themselves. Painters of war generally don’t enjoy the same fanfare and aura of romance as their portraitist/impressionist/surrealist/etc counterparts. Hopefully a new show at the James A. Michener Art Museum will help change that. So Bravely and So Well: The Life and Art of William T. Trego, is the first in depth survey of…yep, William Trego – 19th century America’s most prolific painter of military scenes. A bit of an artist that time forgot, Trego is nonetheless a fascinating mélange of tropes regarding the both the culture and idealization of war and artists.
Trego was born in 1858 to Jonathan Trego, also a painter. His circumstances did not bode well for either an artistic or military career, however. Trego was a victim of polio that left him nearly too fragile to hold his paintbrush, much less ride a horse. He managed to develop a technique for the former problem and study to become a draftsman of incredibly accurate detail. He was a sort of “creative engineer” in the Renaissance paradigm – sketching to perfection to produce larger works. This very conservative approach to the artistic process wasn’t the only way Trego was a dark horse. His topics of choice, military history painting and militaristic subjects, were quickly going out of style.
Trego’s first successful painting was Valley Forge, a history painting of the American Revolution. His fame came mostly from scenes of the much fresher Civil War. Trego rendered cavalry in especially lively detail, and here’s where he really starts to embody some classic traits of the obsessive artist. It’s no coincidence that he exhausted energy on something that he would always be tragically excluded from. In the Color Guard, Trego even paints himself into a Franco-Prussian war scene, leading French troops on a white horse. Writes Edward J. Sozanski for philly.com‘s exhibition write – up:
This image, perhaps, represents pure wish-fulfillment – a frail, disabled artist imagining himself astride a white charger directing a heroic military maneuver. It’s a stirring image, if not a novel one.
There’s something of a Toulouse-Lautrec like outsider’s wisdom in Trego’s art. Lautrec was too small and disabled to truly be a part of the robust fin de siècle Parisian nightlife, but his paintings are to this day synonymous with that glamorous and gritty era. It’s darkly romantic – this idea of the deformed, weak, and excluded finding meaning through art, albeit art showing the life they can never have. Trego even has two of the biggest tortured artist badges of honor: his only love leaving him for another man and his eventual suicide.
These tropes aren’t only limited to the art world. How many war movies and mini-series have that ubiquitous character who dreams of military glory in spite of his delicate composure? It’s usually in the form of a wiry young man who, unlike his friends who fear battle, jumps at the chance to prove himself and find redemption. So was Trego’s story merely a petite human tragedy with a rather Captain America theme – an invalid’s wet dream, so to speak? Maybe a little bit, but I firmly believe that the idealization that drives outsiders to make art can often result in the best portrayal of the artist’s white whale.
*I never know what to call art with militaristic subjects. Surely there must be a more…professional term?