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Hidden Treasures: America’s First Drexel

January 22, 2020

"Self-Portrait" by Francis Martin Drexel. Oil on canvas, 1817. It's believed to have been painted in Dornbirn and brought with 25-year-old Francis Martin that year to America. Today, this painting can be found at Drexel University. Photo courtesy The Drexel Collection.
"Self-Portrait" by Francis Martin Drexel. Oil on canvas, 1817. It's believed to have been painted in Dornbirn and brought with 25-year-old Francis Martin that year to America. Today, this painting can be found at Drexel University. Photo courtesy The Drexel Collection.

There is no Drexel University without its founder, Anthony J. Drexel. And there is no Anthony J. Drexel without his father, Francis Martin Drexel, who escaped Napoleonic forces and spent eight years working in five countries before arriving in the United States and ultimately living out the most American of American dreams. He started the Philadelphia branch of the Drexel family and built a banking dynasty that made his family one of the wealthiest and most prominent of its time. Ultimately, it was that Drexel bank and that Drexel patriarch which led to the founding, and funding, of the University in 1891.

And it all started nearly 100 years earlier in Dornbirn, Austria.

Francis Martin Drexel in Europe

Dornbirn has been the ancestral home of the Drexel family since the 15th century (and is home to Drexel family members even today). There, Francis Martin was born Franz Martin Drexel on April 7, 1792 to his father Franz Josef, one of Dornbirn’s most prosperous merchants and an innkeeper, and his mother Magdalena Wilhelm; he was the middle child, sandwiched between his three-years-older sister Susanna and his four-years-younger brother Anton. Francis Martin led an early life that was a very good life, especially for his time and his town: when Francis Martin was 11, his father could afford to send him to school in Italy, where he learned French and Italian.

Then Napoleon happened. Twice.

Print of Francis Martin Drexel’s birth house. Photo courtesy of Dornbirn City Archives.

In 1805, the French emperor invaded Austria, and the Tyrol state containing Dornbirn was ceded to the Napoleonic state of Bavaria. The region’s economy collapsed and families were ruined — including the Drexels. Francis Martin was forced to abandon his education and return from Italy, but he could now follow his heart and become a painter, since he was no longer expected to follow in his father’s footsteps as a merchant. He then worked as an apprentice to a local painter for three and a half years.

But because Napoleon happened twice, the French emperor invaded the area again in 1809. This time, it was to fight the Tyrol Rebellion against Austrians protesting the occupation of their land. And this time, Francis Martin was 17 years old, which was young enough to have his whole life in front of him and old enough that he could be drafted into Napoleon’s army to fight the Austrian resistance (which he and his father might have joined).

What else could he do but escape and spend the next five years making his way around Europe as a fugitive, penniless painter for hire?

The modern-day view from the Karren mountain in Dornbirn overlooking the city (and Francis Martin Drexel's birth house), with Germany in the forefront and Switzerland (and the Rhine River Francis Martin crossed) to the left.

Just days after the Austrians admitted defeat for the second time, Francis Martin, with the help of a ferryman ride across the Rhine River paid by his father, snuck into neutral Switzerland to avoid conscription.

Neither Drexel could have known that this would lead to threatened imprisonment (for the son, since he was drafted and not there to enlist) and actual imprisonment (for the father, who was jailed when his son didn’t show up). And neither Drexel could have known that Francis Martin’s subsequent journey through Switzerland, Italy and France would change his life so drastically that he realized he could never become a successful artist in his hometown.

Still, he returned to Dornbirn in 1814 after the fall of Napoleon. He painted all of his hopes and dreams into a life-size watercolor painting portraying Emperor Francis I of Austria, the Russian Tsar and the King of Prussia, which he was commissioned by the richest man in Dornbirn to paint for the Austrian emperor. When Francis Martin met Francis I in the market square of Dornbirn, the emperor was impressed enough to accept the painting and make a note of the artist in his diary. For months, Francis Martin stayed in Dornbirn, hoping that his work so pleased the emperor that Francis I would send him to an academy to further his artistic studies.

The Dornbirn marketplace in 2019 where Francis Martin presented his painting to Francis I.

But that never happened — so Francis Martin left his “native place again for the wide world to make a fortune,” as he later wrote (in English) in an account about his early life in a manuscript meant for his family. He worked his way around Austria and Switzerland for two years until 1817, by which point he had heard enough stories about people going to America to want to make the journey there himself.

“I resolved to go too and see that other half of the World or at least a Portion of it, I reasoned to myself since my native place having but five thousand inhabitants would never afford me employ professionally, and being obliged to be from home it would be of no wether I was One Hundred, or Ten Thousand miles off….,” he also wrote. “If I did not do well would return after six months, but if on the contrary Six years, but by no means stay.”

Francis Martin Drexel in the Americas

“Portrait of Mrs. Gottlieb Grundloch” by Francis Martin Drexel. Oil on canvas, 1817. She was his landlord when he first arrived in America. Today, this painting can be found at Drexel University. Photo courtesy The Drexel Collection.

After a tumultuous 72-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean, 25-year-old Francis Martin arrived in Philadelphia in 1817. He ended up living in the Americas not for six month or six years, but for the next 46 years, until his death in 1863. During that time, he visited Austria only once, in 1858 or 1859; his father had died in 1820, his mother in 1832 and it’s unknown when his sister died, but he did reconnect with his brother in Dornbirn.

Three months after arriving in the United States, Francis Martin became an American citizen; his former country of origin was listed as Germany, and his last name was incorrectly initially entered as “Texel” by the record clerk (possibly from the clerk mishearing “Drexel” or maybe Francis Martin misunderstood the question, as Texel is where he had boarded the ship in the Netherlands to come to Philadelphia). In America, Francis Martin remained devoted to his roots, always carrying with him a watercolor painting of the leader of the Tyrol Rebellion and a Tyrolese twenty kreuzer pewter coin. And in 1823, the Deutsche Gesellchaft of Philadelphia (German Society of Philadelphia) received payment for a new member — Francis Martin.

By the end of his first year in America, Francis Martin was mastering the English language, began using an Anglicized version of “Franz” and exhibited nine paintings and two drawings at the annual Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) exhibition in 1818. He also exhibited portraits at the 1819, 1820, 1824 and 1825 PAFA exhibitions, and worked during those years to build a solid career as a portrait painter for hire and for teaching.

"Self-Portrait with Family" by Francis Martin Drexel. Oil on canvas, 1824. This painting, depicting Francis Martin with his wife and first child, was displayed at the 1825 PAFA exhibition and is now housed at Drexel University. Photo courtesy The Drexel Collection.

Francis Martin also laid down his roots. He married Catherine Hookey (1795-1870) in 1821 and within the next five years, they had three children: Mary Johanna (1822­–1873), Francis Anthony (1824–1885) and Anthony Joseph (1826–1893, the founder of Drexel University). But by then, the husband of Catherine’s sister had begun spreading rumors about Francis Martin and the men visiting their home (“I did not escape his infamous tongue” was how Francis Martin simply described it), and sent anonymous letters to Catherine, the school at which he taught painting and the parents of his pupils. Though Francis Martin successfully sued for libel, his reputation was ruined, he lost his job and his painting commissions dwindled.

Once again hitting a crossroads in his life, Francis Martin left his family — just before the University’s founder was born — and traveled the world. This time, he sailed to South America seeking fame and fortune painting generals like Simón Bolívar (similar to what Gilbert Stuart had done with George Washington). For the next four or so years, he traveled around Colombia and Ecuador (parts of which were Colombia and are now Ecuador), Peru, Chile and Bolivia, meeting with and/or painting luminaries including several former, current and future leaders of those nations.

After returning to Philadelphia, Francis Martin resumed painting, and also sold trimmings and small wares and tried his hand as a brewer. Catherine gave birth to Joseph Wilhelm (1831–1888) before Francis Martin took off for Central America and Mexico in 1835 for one last attempt at becoming an internationally acclaimed painter; very little is known of his time there, but he returned to Philadelphia in 1837, after which his youngest children, Heloise (1837–1895) and Caroline (1838–1911), were born. That year — exactly two decades after he arrived in America — 45-year-old Francis Martin finally gave up his dream of artistic success and tried something that set him, and generations of his family, up for life: he entered the world of finance.

He first opened a brokerage house in Louisville, Kentucky, using his fluency and expertise in several languages and currencies both foreign and from individual states (which issued their own notes at the time). After one year, he returned to Philadelphia to open a banking firm, and by the next year his two oldest sons, 15-year-old Francis Anthony and 13-year-old Anthony Joseph, worked there as clerks.

"Portrait of a South American Official" by Francis Martin Drexel. Oil on canvas, 1827. This painting is housed at Drexel University today. Photo courtesy The Drexel Collection.

Having enrolled his children in a French and English school to ensure their training in music, arts and languages (the University’s founder was fluent in English, German and French, and spoke some Spanish and Italian), Francis Martin now began teaching his sons the ins and outs of finance. This experiential learning included on-the-job training in trading currencies, dealing in securities and, most importantly for the bank, investing in and loaning to emerging railroad companies and establishing the practice of selling government war bonds to finance wars, as the Drexel & Co. bank first did with the Mexican War in 1847 (the year both sons made partner).

When Francis Martin made one more once-in-a-lifetime trip, this time to establish and maintain a Drexel & Co. bank during the Gold Rush in San Francisco from 1849 to 1856, Anthony Joseph had become the de facto leader of the bank. Francis Martin shifted into the role of an elder statesman well respected for his civic engagement and philanthropic endeavors (qualities that also passed onto the University founder). With all three of his sons now effectively running the bank and its branches, he began investing in local real estate and copper mines throughout the state.

It was coming back from visiting one of those sites in 1863 that Francis Martin took a fateful step off a train, fell onto the tracks and was ran over by the train. He died later that night, at the age of 71.

Francis Martin Drexel in Drexel University

Francis Martin’s legacy lived on through his children, who by then were notable upstanding citizens. Anthony Joseph most prominently carried out his father’s work — through the Drexel & Co. banks — and his values. He created the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry, which he created to teach the next generation of workers of all races, genders, classes, ages and religion. It opened in 1891, with classes (including art classes) officially starting in 1892 — 100 years after Francis Martin was born.

“Portrait of Francis Martin Drexel (1792–1863)" by Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant. Oil on canvas, 19th century. This painting is believed to have been painted of Francis Martin after his death. It currently hangs in Drexel University’s Paul Peck Alumni Center with a painting of his son Anthony Joseph Drexel, also painted by the same artist. Photo courtesy The Drexel Collection.

Now known as Drexel University, the institution currently holds 38 of Francis Martin’s paintings — the largest collection of his art in the world — through The Drexel Collection, the steward of the University’s art and special objects. And it’s at his son’s institution where something occurred (at least twice!) that Francis Martin likely never experienced during his lifetime, though he dearly would have wanted to: The Drexel Collection has hosted exhibitions focused solely on his art, most recently in the 1940s and in 1976. The University has also displayed his art in gallery spaces on campus.  

In the 21st century, Drexel’s Director of Athletics and the College of Arts and Sciences’ Carl R. Pacifico Professor of Neuropsychology Eric Zillmer, PsyD, kickstarted a dynamic relationship between the University and Francis Martin’s birthplace. Zillmer, who grew up in nearby Bavaria and is fluent in German (his mother was Viennese), wrote an e-mail to the City of Dornbirn in 2009 to substantiate that the University’s heritage was indeed Austrian; since then, he has helped facilitate many Philadelphia-Dornbirn visits. Two Dornbirn mayors as well as the U.S. Austrian ambassador and the Austrian trade commission have visited University, and many Drexel alumni, faculty, students and even members of the Drexel family have embarked on a “return” trip to Dornbirn some 200 years after Francis Martin left.

This story was published in the winter 2020 issue of Drexel Quarterly.