|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|Francis Martin Drexel was a prominent 19th-century portrait painter
whose painting career began in Europe, continued in Philadelphia and in
South America for an extended period of time. He also became a
banker and was the founder of the brokerage house, Drexel & Company
in Philadelphia. |
Born in Dornbirn, in the far western Austrian
Alpine province of the Vorarlbergon on April 7, 1792, he was the son of
one of Dornbirn's most successful merchants. From 1806 to 1809, Drexel
was apprenticed to a painter in the village of Wolfurt, five miles
north of Dornbirn. These studies ended because of the failed 1809
Tyrolese uprising against the occupation of Napoleon in Austria, which
nearly impoverished the elder Drexel, one of the insurgency's
leaders. To avoid being drafted into the Bonapartist forces to
fight against his own country, at age 17, he fled to Switzerland.
a refugee, he wandered about Switzerland, Italy and France for five
years, getting work where he could as an itinerant painter of houses
and coaches. Unlike most other artists, Drexel disliked Paris,
leaving after only five weeks, although he had planned to stay longer.
home after Napoleon's defeat, Francis Drexel was determined to become a
portrait painter. He received a few commissions around Dornbirn,
as well as on the German side of the Bodensee, and eventually in Berne
and Basel. On April 2, 1817, seeking greater opportunity, he left
his family on a sailing ship from Amsterdam and seventy-two days later,
arrived in Philadelphia on July 28, 1817.
He established a
studio at 131 South Front Street within six weeks of his arrival. Soon
after the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts displayed no fewer than
nine of his oils and a number of crayon drawings in its 1818
exhibition. Following, his portraits were exhibited in 1819,
1820, 1824, and 1825. In that last year, the work considered his
masterpiece was shown. It is the large exhibition-size (54 inches
x 44 inches) self portrait of Drexel with his family, depicting his
confident self at the easel with palette and pigment case. He is
accompanied by his wife Catherine Hookey Drexel (1795-1870) and their
daughter Mary Johanna (1822-1873). (His marriage to Catherine in 1821
brought them three daughters and three sons.)
One reason that
Drexel may not have shown at the Academy from 1821 to 1823 was that he
may have been busy with portrait commissions. Advertisements as a
"Portrait and Miniature Painter" from 1821 and 1823 survive, as well as
numerous portraits from that period.
Drexel was forced to sue
Bernard Gallagher, who was married to Catherine's sister, for spreading
(still unrevealed) slanderous statements about him. Drexel was
prevailed upon to settle in order to avoid forcing Gallagher's family
Feeling so defamed and disquieted by the
affair, Drexel took leave of his wife and two children (son Francis
Anthony Drexel having been born on June 20, 1824), and set sail on May
15, 1826, for South America. For four years he toured Bolivia,
Ecuador, Chile, and Peru, painting portraits of local
dignitaries. Drexel's leather-bound journal survives in the
archives of the Drexel University library and recounts proudly that by
the time of his return to Philadelphia, on April 10, 1830, he had
earned $22,610 on paper, of which he was able to send home $12,545 (the
rest going for expenses or was yet owed him). As Captain
Gallagher had been warning the Hookeys that they would never see "that
damned Dutchman" again, Drexel's profitable return was no doubt a
source of personal triumph for the artist.
continued to paint portraits in Philadelphia for another five
years. But by 1835, he was off again, this time to Mexico during
the Texas struggle for independence. Earlier biographers, Elsa
Loacker-Jones and Boies Penrose, have suggested that his frequent
travels through often tumultuous economies may have afforded him
experience with speculating in foreign exchange. This, along with
competition from the more established portrait painters in
Philadelphia, such as Thomas Sully (1783-1872) and members of the
ubiquitous Peale family, may have prompted Drexel, then aged 46, to put
his career as a painter on hold and take up banking upon his return
early in 1837. The Bank of the United States had closed and a
financial panic ensued that year.
Drexel opened his first
brokerage office in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1837, transferring the
business to Philadelphia in 1838. He built a reputation for being able
to fairly value so-called "uncurrent money," issuances of paper money
by state banks to augment the short supplies of hard currency.
Drexel was regarded so highly in the banking industry that the U.S.
government asked his bank to underwrite the Mexican War (1846-48) with
an issuance of $49 million in war bonds.
His oldest sons
joined the business, and in 1847 were taken in as partners. Drexel left
them in charge when he followed the gold rush to California in 1849.
There in San Francisco, in 1851, he established a banking affiliate,
Drexel, Sather & Church, which he later closed in the financial
panic following the Civil War.
Drexel died while on a business
trip to Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, as a result of his jumping too
quickly off a moving train. Caught beneath the carriage, his
right leg was severed by a wheel. He died from his injuries the
next evening, April 5, 1863.
2003 Maine Antique Digest
Groce and Wallace, The New York Historical Society's Dictionary of Artists in America
Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art
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Francis Drexel is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Painted in Latin America