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The Painter, the Peso… and the saint.

5 March 2019

My friend, Deacon John Donaghy posted the other day that it was the Feast of St. Katherine Drexel… I knew that she’d been from a wealthy family, but was kind of curious where that wealth came from.  The Mexican peso, among other things.

A high-society heiress giving it all up to become a nun is, in a way, a romantic story, but those millions (or today’s billions) she turned her back on to serve the Indigenous and African-American communties for 60+ years, comes with an even more romantic back story… involving art, revolution, Texas and money.

The future saint’s grand-father was Francis Martin Drexel … artist, rogue, adventurer… and the George Soros of 19th century America.  Born in the Austrian Alps, on the borders of Lichtenstein and Switzerland, he somehow managed as a teenager to get mixed up in an anti-Napoleonic underground, and had to flee to Switzerland when he was 17.  So far, the typical romantic background for a 19th century artist.  Perhaps, though, being in Switzerland, he learned a few banking tricks, or at least knew some bankers (after all, he was a portrait painter).

Like so many 19th century failed revolutionaries, he emigrated to the United States.  He married into a prominent Philidelphia family, and immediately… like any good romantic figure… to get himself in all kinds of trouble with his conventional in-laws.  A murky lawsuit over a slander by his brother-in-law about his wife forced Drexel to pay out a large settlement, and to go on the road to recover the sizable (for an artist.. in other words, respectable but moderate) fortune he’d made as a successful painter of Philadelphia’s elites.

He managed to return from a tour of South America (painting, among others, Simon Bolivar) with a sizable (for the time) $12,500 nest-egg (about $350,000 in today’s dollars), by no means a “starving artist” income, though for a man with growing family (he’d father six children in all) and married into “respectablablity” not enough to just sit back and indulge his artistic whims.

Portrait of a South American Official (1829). Drexel University Collection

So… in 1835, it was time for another foray into Latin America, this time, Mexico.  Which perhaps was as good as any time for a painter to be there, but with a government falling apart, no real banking system to speak of, and rampant speculation in recently seized church properties and land in Texas (especially after the war for Texas independence broke out the next year) created a bouncing peso on the currency market, and… perhaps having picked up more than just art techniques during his time in Switzerland… currency speculation, for Drexel, became an art in itself..  One he’d perfect upon his return to the United States in 1837, just as Andrew Jackson had forced the closure of the Bank of the United States (then headquartered in Philadelphia).

Jackson may have been the hero of the “common man”, but the growing U.S. economy needed money … and Drexel knew how to make it.  Besides, while he was out of the country, his clients had turned to the growing number of other Philidephia area protraitists… Thomas Sully (1783- 1872) and the “ubiquitous Peale family”.  WIth no national bank, and local banks issuing their own currency, Drexel turned what he’d learned from dealing in a peso that changed value by the day (and depending on where one was in Mexico) to the confused currency situation in the United States, quickly becoming the go-to source for western expansionist projects.  Including the railroads.  Which killed him:  he fell getting off a train and got run over in 1863,

The bank still exists, and the Drexel family are still filthy rich, though some… like Catherine (her religious name was Katherine) paint a different picture of the very rich and portrait of American wealth, and taking advantage of Mexico.



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