While later generations of Drexels would travel the world in style, the family patriarch began the tradition as a matter of survival.
Francis M. Drexel early years
Francis Martin Drexel’s young life was full of uncertainty. He was born into a family who had lived in the same town of Dornbirn, in the state of Vorarlberg, Austria, for generations. His father Franz Joseph Drexel left behind his diminishing inherited farm and became a merchant of some success. Francis was well-educated in his early years, spending two years in Italy where he expressed his interest in painting. His father’s mercantile business failed and he became an innkeeper; because of this Francis pursued art, apprenticing with a painter for three years. Political conflict would soon send young Francis’s life into further insecurity and lead to many years spent struggling to survive. In 1809, there was a Tyrolese uprising against the governments of Bavaria and France that was ultimately unsuccessful, and young men were conscripted to fight in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army. Rather than face this forced military service, Francis ran from his hometown with his father’s aid. There began almost six years spent hiding out in Switzerland, Austria and Italy. He took odd jobs as he traveled, and in 1812 began studying painting again while working as a sign painter. After Dornbirn was declared part of Austria once again and Francis returned home, he did not stay for long. The young painter wanted a larger patron base and to see more of the world. He decided to move to the United States.
Francis recounted many of these early adventures in a document written for his children:
"Having frequently conversed with children born in America from German parents, who were not able to say where their father or mother were from except from Germany, an ignorance, which could not do any honor to them nor their parents; made me anxious to live [leave] this my children that at least if they wish to peruse it, find who my parents were, and where and when I was born..."
Francis did not intend to remain in the United States for longer than six years. Over time that intention shifted: he met and married Catherine Hookey and his reputation as a painter earned him a job as a painting teacher at a seminary. The Hookeys were an established family in Philadelphia with English Quaker and Pennsylvania Dutch ancestry. This family association led to a scandal when the husband of Catherine’s sister, who clearly disliked Francis, spread rumors accusing Francis of inappropriate conduct with his young women students. It is unknown whether this accusation was true, but it was cause for Francis to both sue his brother-in-law and look elsewhere for work as his reputation in Philadelphia was tarnished. In 1826 he left Philadelphia for a voyage to South America, where he hoped to establish himself once again as a portrait painter.
"Jornal [sic] from Guayaquil, Pacific Ocean to diferent [sic] parts of Peru & Chili [sic], by Francis M. Drexel.
The city of Guayaquil lays in the South latitude and longitude west on the river of that name which is formed by the melted snow of the Andes, is here more than a mile broad, and empties itself 60 miles below in the pacific..."
Excerpts from his journal, at top: A list of portraits painted in Lima, from 1827.
Lower left: A map showing Francis M. Drexel's travel route, believed to be annotated by Sarah Drexel Fell Van Rensselaer around 1914-1916.