Accounts of the origins of Trego's paralysis vary.
Trego's parents said he fell off a sofa at age 2 and injured his spine.
Trego himself believed that a doctor accidentally gave him an overdose of calomel when he was teething.
But most art historians think that it probably was polio that left the boy with crippled feet and almost totally paralyzed hands. Yet whatever the cause of his handicap, it did not deny him his artistry.
According to files in the library of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Trego was born in Yardley in 1859. His father, Jonathan, an associate of the academy, made a living by painting the portraits of well- to-do people in the area. Young Trego's mother died early in his life and he was reared by a stepmother, Delia Dexter Trego. The family settled in North Wales, where the father had a studio that William shared, first as a student and later as an artist.
Trego's father was his first art teacher and he gave his son a good grounding in drafting. By his teens, Trego had persuaded his parents to allow him to drop out of high school to devote himself full time to his painting.
During this period, Trego developed an interest in military art in general and the history of the Civil War in particular.
History painting was popular in the United States during much of the 19th century, but photography supplanted it toward the end of the century.
"Trego's timing was very bad. Military history art was no longer popular and the realistic narrative style he used was losing ground to the new impressionistic style that was developing in the art world of the period. So his work was running contra to popular trends," said Cory Amsler, curator of the Bucks County Historical Society in Doylestown, which has in its collection a number of Trego's paintings.
In 1879, when Trego was just 20, his career was launched when he exhibited The Charge of Custer at Winchester, a Civil War painting. With the proceeds
from its sale, he was able to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied under Thomas Eakins. While at the academy he produced another large painting that depicted George Washington, The March to Valley Forge, December 16, 1777. The painting is part of the Valley Forge Historical Society collection.
Between 1886 and 1889, Trego studied in Europe, most notably Paris, where he did some sketching for future paintings of the Franco-Prussian War. He later turned these sketches into large history paintings.
Upon his return from Europe, he again lived with his father and stepmother in North Wales. And while he continued to paint, he experienced trouble making ends meet.
"Trego was far from being financially successful as an artist. The paintings he produced were not in demand, so he had to accept much less than he thought the paintings were worth," Amsler said.
Despite the limited market for them, he continued to produce history paintings.
He remained close to his parents and had few friends. His disability made it difficult for him to move and he was short-tempered with anyone who tried to help him.
His studio was full of props and books related to the Civil War and other aspects of military history. He did painstaking research into the battles he depicted on canvas. Details such as terrain, uniforms and weapons were important to him.
In doing the 1899 painting of The Rescue of the Colors, an incident in the Civil War battle of Fair Oaks, he wrote to men who had fought in the battle and asked detailed questions:
"How far from the fence was the woods?
"Where was the captain and lieutenant of Company C?
"Did the enemy come near enough for the men in the front ranks to see their hands?"
The painting, which he worked on for more than a year, was sold for $400 to the Bucks County Historical Society. The work represented Trego at the high point of his career. After this, his life began to unravel.
In 1901, Trego's father died, leaving a great void in his life. Yet he continued to work. But in 1907, his stepmother also died, making it difficult for Trego to take care of himself. His last canvas, The Chariot Race, done in 1908, was large, measuring 48 inches by 84 1/2 inches, and is considered one of his better non-Civil War paintings.
In June 1909, at age 50, alone and in debt with no prospect of improving his financial situation, he committed suicide.
Yet his art, 86 years later, is still remembered.
"His Civil War paintings are still in demand by a small group of
collectors. And his large pieces - say seven feet long to four feet high - have a market value of somewhere between $40,000 to $60,000," said Ray Pederson, an art dealer in Lambertville, N.J., who sells history paintings.