The Drexel Collection is currently hosting an exhibition entitled “The Drexel Family in the Fine and Decorative Arts: A Retrospective,” which features works of art and other artifacts related to the Drexel family.The exhibition, which is on display April 18-June 30, is located in Drexel’s Rincliffe Gallery and Anthony J. Drexel Picture Gallery, both of which are in the Main Building. The exhibit features 70 pieces, many of which are on loan from members of the Drexel family, according to Jacqueline DeGroff, curator of the Drexel Collection.
The timing of the exhibit is meant to coincide with the inauguration of Drexel President John Fry, according to DeGroff. Fry’s wife, Cara Fry, whose educational background is in art history, is serving as the exhibit’s guest curator.
DeGroff said the response to the exhibit has been very positive, and that the pieces on display have given people “a better sense of the [Drexel] family.”
The exhibition includes different types of artwork and other artifacts, including large portraits, miniature portraits, other paintings, photographs, silver, letters and other documents.
“It’s really wonderful to have such an array of [media],” DeGroff said.
The Rincliffe Gallery portion of the exhibit includes a combination of paintings and other art and artifacts, while the Drexel Picture Gallery features a series of portraits of Drexel family members.
Some pieces in the exhibit relate directly to Anthony J. Drexel, such as a photograph of him reading and a formal portrait. Anthony Drexel “learned from his father the importance of portraits … as well as collecting art,” DeGroff said. She added that Anthony Drexel did not like sitting for portraits himself, making the portrait on display in the exhibit relatively rare.
The exhibition also includes pieces related to Anthony Drexel’s wife, Ellen Rozet Drexel, including a letter from Empress Eugénie, wife of French Emperor Napoleon III, discussing difficulties in the Franco-Prussian War.
Other pieces on display also have connections to famous contemporaries of Drexel family members. DeGroff said a segment of the exhibit focusing on Anthony Drexel’s daughter, Francis Biddle, features a Bible given to Biddle as a wedding gift by George Meade, a Union General during the Civil War, and his wife.
Meade and President Ulysses S. Grant attended Biddle’s wedding, which occurred in 1872, during Grant’s presidency. A collection of 10 personal letters between Grant and A.J. Drexel are also on display.
Other pieces in the Biddle segment of the exhibit include those concerning a later descendant of the Biddle line – Anthony Biddle Jr., whom DeGroff said served as an ambassador to at-risk countries during World War II, among other jobs. Included among these pieces are a signed photograph of President Franklin Roosevelt given to Biddle and a copy of Life magazine featuring a photograph of Biddle on its cover. Biddle was a great-grandson of Anthony Drexel.
Other documents on display include a copy of a letter sent by Anthony Drexel to his nieces, including St. Katharine Drexel, who was canonized in 2000. The letter is from the archives of the convent Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, which St. Katharine Drexel founded.
Another piece on display is a silver kettle on a stand, which was a wedding gift from Junius Morgan, father of financier J.P. Morgan, to Ellen Welsh. Welsh was an employee at Drexel & Company, which was founded by Anthony Drexel’s father, Francis Martin Drexel. Other pieces on display include a silver coaster featuring the crest of the Drexel family – a stag above a crown.
The exhibit also features a series of sketches by Francis Martin Drexel. DeGroff said that some of the sketches were exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1818.
Additional paintings on display include one of a yacht named “The May,” which was owned by the family of Sarah Drexel, a daughter of Anthony Drexel. Photographs and a signature book from “The May,” which traveled to places including the Mediterranean, are also on display, as are other artifacts such as a piece of the yacht’s official porcelain featuring a depiction of its burgees.
The Drexel Picture Gallery portraits that are on loan for the exhibit are interspersed with other portraits that are in the picture gallery long-term. Some of these long-term portraits also fit with the theme of the exhibit, according to DeGroff.
Some of the Drexel family portraits were painted by well-known artists including Thomas Sully, Charles Dana Gibson and Philip Alexius de László.
DeGroff said that through the exhibit “you can see that the [Drexel] family clearly appreciates art” and that “the family enjoys their experiences together.”
According to DeGroff, the exhibition was organized in part through the Drexel Family Committee, which sent letters to descendants of University founder Anthony J. Drexel asking if they would like to contribute to the exhibit.
“[It is] really wonderful that [members of the Drexel family] were willing to lend their art and go without it [for] several months,” DeGroff added.
The Drexel family was also invited to attend events at the University April 15-16, a program the University called the Drexel Family Reunion. About 60 members of the Drexel family attended the program, according to DeGroff.
DeGroff said the most rewarding part of the exhibit for her thus far occurred during the reunion.
“…[The] family came to see the exhibit and I was able to share it with them, and really sense their excitement and enthusiasm about the exhibit, and also their excitement about being back at Drexel again,” she said.
The family reunion was sponsored by Drexel’s Office of Institutional Advancement, which also funded the exhibition, according to DeGroff.
DeGroff said that planed future exhibitions at Drexel include an exhibit on dragon iconography, which will include works of art on loan from major museums throughout the United States. Drexel has received a grant from the Carpenter Foundation for this exhibit, according to DeGroff.