William T. Trego: Catalogue Raisonne

The Battle of Fair Oaks, Sumner's Reinforcements, May 31-June 1, 1862, 1886

Courtesy of Syd and Sharon Martin

Vital Statistics

Alternate title: The Charge at Fair Oaks
Oil on canvas, 20 x 30 inches
Signed and dated (indistinctly) lr: “W. T. Trego 1886”
Collection of Syd and Sharon Martin

Commentary

Trego focused on the intense battle that ensued when General Sumner’s reinforcements arrived on the battlefield at Fair Oaks, after crossing the rapidly rising Chickahominy River, and attacked the Confederate lines with bayonets. Trego’s painting seems to echo the words of Union commander General McClellan’s 1886 description of the battle: “General Sumner ordered five regiments . . . to advance and charge with the bayonets. . . . Our troops, springing over two fences which were between them and the enemy, rushed upon his lines and drove him in confusion from that part of the field.” (George Brinton McClellan, William Cowper Prime, McClellan’s Own Story: The War for the Union, the Soldiers who Fought It, the Civilians who Directed it and His Relations to it and to Them [C.L. Webster & Company, 1886], pp. 381–82.) Trego apparently knew that a Philadelphia Zouave unit had participated in the battle. However, either he was unaware that their trademark baggy trousers were a shade of blue, and not red, or he ignored this inconvenient fact in the interest of adding more color to the scene. On the left, we see a soldier who has just been shot falling to the ground, while the man in front of him turns to see his comrade go down. Showing a soldier’s awareness that another has been shot was a device that Trego employed with regularity in his Civil War battle scenes. Not only does it call attention to the brutal facts of combat, but it also serves to suggest that the soldiers were constantly aware of the imminent peril they faced and potentially traumatized by the loss of their comrades in arms. The wounded soldier from the 1884 oil sketch also appears in this painting, on the far right side, pleading for help in the midst of battle.

There is a face in the background that resembles the artist, though without the mustache he was already sporting.

An old label mounted on the frame incorrectly gives the title as “The Battle of Faire Oaks, Summer’s Reinforcements.”

Much of the composition for this work can be seen in another work Trego did in 1895, Union Soldiers in Combat. However, it is possible that the later painting was actually a preparatory sketch for The Battle of Fair Oaks, retouched and redated as a gift to a friend in 1895.

Provenance

Sold by Doyle New York, auction of Modern and Contemporary Art, lot #1309, to the current owner, May 23rd, 2006.

Exhibitions

New York, autumn 1886: National Academy of Design Exhibition.

Doylestown, Pennsylvania, James A. Michener Art Museum, June 3-Oct 2, 2011: "So Bravely and So Well: The Life and Art of William T. Trego."

Reference

“In the way of war scenes, Mr. William T. Trego, of Philadelphia shows a certain coarse power in his ‘Charge at Fair Oaks.’ The faces of the soldiers, perhaps unduly heavy in feature, are welcome, because they afford a relief to the mean, stereotyped Union soldier evolved from the inner consciousness of our painters of the civil war. Most of these faces have been carefully studied from models, one likes to think, and the slow rush of a heavy body of men is capitally told.” (“The Autumn Academy,” New York Times, 21 November 1886)

Condition

The painting is in good condition

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James A. Michener Art Museum William T. Trego Catalogue Raisonne