Texana Thursday: Sculptor Elisabet Ney

Visit the state Capitol in Austin, and in the south foyer you’ll see statues of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin. The statues are replicated in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, where every state is allowed to have statues of two state heroes.

Or, visit the Texas State Cemetery, also in Austin, and you’ll see a memorial statue at the gravesite of Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnson.

These sculptures, and many others, are the work of the sculptor Elisabet Ney (1833-1907), whose studio in Austin and whose home near Hempstead are now museums.

She was born in Munster, Westphalia, Germany, and from the start was an independent thinker. She worked alongside her father, a stonecutter, and decided she would become a sculptor.

Sculptor Elisabet Ney (1860), painting by Friedrich Kaulbach

Sculptor Elisabet Ney (1860), painting by Friedrich Kaulbach

Her family discouraged her. It was an era in which young ladies didn’t become sculptors. Admiring the artwork, perhaps dabbling in it, was one thing. But becoming a sculptor? That was something else. Miss Ney would not be deterred, and she went on a hunger strike to protest. Her family acquiesced, and she became the first female admitted to the Academy of Arts in Munich.

Miss Ney began sculpting and developing a career for herself in Europe. She met and married Edmund Montgomery, a physician. Remaining the independent thinker, she chose not to take his last name, continuing to call herself Miss Ney. They emigrated in 1871 to America, where they first settled in Georgia. In 1873, they moved to Texas and purchased the Liendo Plantation, just east of Hempstead. Miss Ney set her artwork aside, and managed the household affairs while raising their children. Montgomery focused on his scientific work.

Eventually Miss Ney decided to resume her career as a sculptor. She purchased some property in Austin, at what is now 304 East 44th Street, and turned it into her studio, which she called Formosa. Here she created some of her most notable works, such as the Houston, Austin, and Johnson statues. She also created statues and busts of other figures of the day, including William Jennings Bryan.

Formosa, now known as the Elisabet Ney Museum, in Austin.

Formosa, now known as the Elisabet Ney Museum, in Austin

Formosa became not merely a studio, but also a gathering place for influential people of the day to talk about art, politics, and other topics.

Miss Ney died June 29, 1907, and was buried at Liendo Plantation, which, like Formosa, is open for tours today. Montgomery died four years later and was buried next to her.

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