Francis Martin Drexel

(American born Austria, 1792 - 1863)

Francis Martin Drexel’s life was a see-saw of wealth, poverty, success, disgrace, and in the end, success and wealth once again. Drexel was born in Dornbirn, Austria, the eldest son of a prosperous merchant. When Napoleon gained control of the Tyrol, the family fortunes were decimated, and Drexel was forced to leave school. He was apprenticed to a painter in Dornbirn for three years. After his involvement in the Tyrolese revolt, he fled to Switzerland, where he earned his living doing house and coach painting. In 1814 he participated in an art exhibit in Lausanne before returning to Austria. Drexel immigrated to the United States in 1817. He set up a studio in Philadelphia and exhibited there at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for the first time in 1818. Drexel exhibited thirty-one works at the Academy between 1818 and 1826. Almost all of these were portraits; a genre subject was unusual for Drexel or for any artist painting in the United States in 1818. Drexel sailed for South America in 1826, and there he received commissions for almost two hundred portraits and miniatures. He returned to Philadelphia in 1830 and continued his painting career until 1836. During that year the charter of the Second Bank of the United States expired and was not renewed. Because of the financial expertise Drexel had gathered from his European and South American experiences, he was able to parlay the bank chaos into a most profitable venture--the foundation of the international banking house of Drexel and Company. He died in 1863 as a result of injuries suffered in a train accident. Francis Martin Drexel’s son, Anthony Joseph Drexel, was one of the most successful financiers of the nineteenth century, as well as a philanthropist and an art collector. He founded the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, and Industry (now Drexel University) in Philadelphia, which opened its doors in 1891. From the beginning, Drexel displayed works of art in its main building; today much of the University’s collection is displayed in the recently restored second-floor Picture Gallery. Many artists have studied at Drexel; Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) and Howard Pyle (1853-1911) are the most influential to have taught there. The Drexel Collection includes several paintings by Francis Martin Drexel, and in 1976 the university mounted a loan exhibition of his work. Its catalogue, Francis Martin Drexel (1792-1863): An Artist Turned Banker, is the most complete reference on the artist. Portrait of the Artist at the Easel with His Wife and Daughter, which is reproduced as the catalogue’s frontispiece, was acquired by the Drexel Collection in 2003.