The March to Valley Forge

Alyssa BentzGBH is uniquely pleased to introduce Alyssa Bentz, Museum Assistant at the Wells Fargo History Museum in Philadelphia. Alyssa has a BA in History/Art History from the University of Delaware (where she also received her Masters in History). In addition to a love of reading, writing, and researching arcane historical events, she also enjoys horseback riding.

All yours, Alyssa! (CR)

William T. Trego is best known for his paintings of historical battlefields, including the six-foot-wide, March to Valley Forge, at the American Revolution Center in Philadelphia. (The painting itself is currently at the Visitor Center of Valley Forge National Park, while the American Revolution Center finishes renovations.) The painting is of George Washington leading his troops into Valley Forge in the winter of 1777. It has become an iconic image of the American Revolution, even though it was painted over one hundred years later. The image was used for a commemorative stamp in 1976, to celebrate America’s Bicentennial.

Inspired by Washington Irving’s biography of George Washington, which portrayed the march as “sad and dreary,” Trego created a somber procession of soldiers in a grey, winter landscape. In stylistic terms, Trego created a balanced and technical composition that demonstrated his education and training under Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

The March to Valley Forge

Trego’s technical prowess is all the more astonishing given the severe physical limitations he suffered. Whether from polio or from medicine containing mercury, Trego’s hands and feet were mostly paralyzed by the time he turned two. To paint, Trego placed the paintbrush in his right hand and guided the entire right hand using his left.

Despite his physical limitations, Trego was noted as one of the best historical painters of his time. Unfortunately for him, he achieved his status as an expert in historical paintings just as the popularity of historical paintings and realism was replaced by the looser brushstrokes of the Impressionists. His skill did not lead to financial success; he had difficulty finding buyers for his painstakingly constructed pieces. Even The March to Valley Forge, his finest work, had an ambiguous reception.

Trego entered The March to Valley Forge in the Temple Competition of Historical Paintings (pdf), hosted by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The painting was chosen as the best in the contest. In a surprise decision, however, the judges also ruled that his painting was only good enough to win third place! So, despite being the only painting that won an award, Trego did not win the cash prize he hoped for. Trego sued for prize money, but lost.

At his death in 1909, Trego’s name slipped out of the discussion; it is only recently that any research was done on his life and work. Despite the lack of personal noteriety, however, copies of Trego’s paintings steadily appeared in the 20th century. It is saidthat no American History textbook exists without one of his paintings!

The Wells Fargo Museum in Philadelphia is currently displaying an early draft of The March to Valley Forge. By displaying this unfinished painting, Wells Fargo is contributing to a renewed discussion of this important and fascinating American artist.

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One Response to The March to Valley Forge

  1. Jim Flaxington says:

    QUESTION: Does anyone know the names of the officers on horseback who are with Washington in this painting?

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