The Rescue of the Colors, 1899
Courtesy of the Mercer Museum/Bucks County Historical Society
Vital StatisticsOil on canvas, 4 x 7.5 feet
Signed, dated, and copyrighted lr: Wm. T. Trego copyright 1899
Verso: Hand written inscription; "The Rescue of the Colors"/104 Pa Vols at Fair Oaks
Bucks County Historical Society, Mercer Museum, Doylestown, Pennsylvania
CommentaryThe painting was commissioned by General W. W. H. Davis in 1898. Trego worked on it for nearly a year, with the intention of producing an accurate image of the legendary episode he was asked to portray. Many tiny details, even in the background, are not generic references to pitched battle but represent actual people and events that occurred during the Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia, on 31 May 1862. A pamphlet written by the artist and distributed at the time of the paintings unveiling, describes each detail for the benefit of the viewer. In the foreground, Colonel (later General) Davis is shown to the left clutching his wounded elbow, blood running down his fingers, but with his attention focused on the rescue of the flags taking place some forty yards in front of him. A photograph of a model posing for this figure survives in the Mercer Museum Collection. In the exact center of the foreground is a group of three soldiers for which Tregos oil study has survived in a private collection. A pencil sketch and another oil study of the whole composition also survive (Mercer Museum and private collection, respectively). Having studied the battle and interviewed the participants, Trego emphasized the heavy losses suffered by the regiment that afternoon. Several bodies litter the battlefield. In the immediate foreground, the dead eye of one corpse stares at us. Throughout the painting, several men can be seen grasping their bleeding faces and heads. Philadelphia merchant John Wanamaker paid the artists fee of four hundred dollars and made a gift of the painting to the Bucks County Historical Society. The painting was a sensation when unveiled in October 1899, thought the artist was profoundly disappointed that it was buried in a room in the courthouse where few could see it. Sadly, Tregos intention of touring the painting was never realized, as the Bucks County Historical Society refused to allow the painting to leave the county.
ProvenanceIt has been owned by the Bucks County Historical Society since it was painted in 1899
ExhibitionsDoylestown, Pennsylvania, Mercer Museum, Spring 1992: Three Artists Named Trego: An Exhibit at the Mercer Museum."
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."
Doylestown, Pennsylvania, Mercer Museum, Spring and Summer, 2013: "Turning Points, Civil War, 1863-1864."
In Helen H. Gemmill, William B. T. Trego: The Artist with the Paralyzed Hands, Antiques (November 1983), p. 99. A print of this sketch had been produced by the American Print Gallery in cooperation with the Mercer Museum of the Bucks County Historical Society. Hand-painted reproductions in oil, of varying sizes, are available from several sources. The painting was re-created as a tableau vivant and photographed by McClellans Rangers, a Civil War reenactment group dedicated to the memory of the 104th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Brigade, which participated in the Battle of Fair Oaks.
ReferenceLike Tregos famous painting, The March to Valley Forge, the Rescue of the Colors has been written about innumerable times over the past 110 years. The following is just a sample: The Week in Art, New York Times, 28 October 1899; W. W. H. Davis, History of Bucks County, 1905; W. W. H. Davis, History of Doylestown, Old and New, 1905; William T. Trego, New York Times, 26 June 1909; Will Carleton, ed., Every Where; A Magazine of World-Wide Interest, 1909; Bucks County Historical Society, A Collection of Papers Read Before the Bucks County Historical Society, 1937; Arthur Edwin Bye, A Friendly Heritage Along the Delaware, 1959; Purcell Family of America Genealogical Association, The Purcell Family of America, 1980; Margaret E. Wagner, The Library of Congress Civil War Desk Reference (Library of Congress, 2002).
Numerous letters and a copy of Tregos contract for the
painting exist in the Trego files and the General W. W. H. Davis files,
Spruance Library, BCHS, Mercer Museum, Doylestown,
Pennsylvania. Other letters
referring to the painting are found in the Trego file and Harrison S. Morris
press books in the archives of the Pennsylvania
Academy of the Fine Arts.