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 Francis Martin Drexel  (1792 - 1863)

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Lived/Active: Pennsylvania      Known for: formal portrait painter

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Ad Code: 3
Francis Martin Drexel
from Auction House Records.
Family Portrait
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
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.

As 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.

Returning 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 into destitution.

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.

Francis Drexel 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

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