By Julianne G. Crane
I’ve never forgotten the Elisabet Ney Museum since first stepping into the studio in the early ’70s when I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas, Austin. Back then the space was musty and poorly lit. I would swear that some of the original plaster from Ney’s work was still lingering in the corners of her large studio. Other than a volunteer docent, I was the only person shuffling through this unique limestone structure with dozens of Ney’s sculptures.
The Elisabet Ney Museum was the home and studio of the trail-blazing German-born portrait sculptor between 1892 and 1907, when she passed from heart disease.
Born in 1833, Ney was the first woman to study at the Munich Academy of Art and subsequently trained with renowned sculptors favored by royalty and “the great persons of Europe.”
After a successful career in Europe, Ney and her husband, Scottish-born physician Edmund Duncan Montgomery, emigrated to the United States in 1870. Eventually, they moved in 1873 to Liendo Plantation near Hempstead, Texas, 40 miles northwest of Houston. For nearly 20 years, Ney virtually abandoned sculpture to devote herself to running the plantation and rearing their son.
Then in 1892, she build a “rugged but majestic limestone homestead and studio” in Austin and returned to her passion in life – sculpting. Ney named her studio Formosa, (Portuguese for “beautiful”). And at the age of 59, she relaunched her career with commissions to create statues of Texas patriots Sam Houston (1892) and Stephen F. Austin (1893).
Today, the museum houses the artwork and personal belongings of Ney. It includes more than 50 of the 100 statues, busts, and medallions she is known to have created.
In addition to the “furniture, tools, and personal effects, the museum has sculptures in bronze, marble, and plaster that include many of Ney’s likenesses of 19th century political and literary figures: King Ludwig II, Otto von Bismarck, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Arthur Schopenhauer, and William Jennings Bryan.”
Also on display are her sculptures of Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, and Gen. Albert Sydney Johnston, as well as her last major private work, the “allegorical figure of Lady Macbeth (1905), which Ney regarded as her masterpiece.”
According to the museum’s website, Ney’s legacy has been increasingly recognized and honored since the museum’s founding in 1911. Today, Formosa is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also a local and state landmark, venerated as Ney’s former studio, the first art museum in Texas. The National Trust for Historic Preservation selected Formosa to be one of the members of its Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program.
The Tower Study
My favorite room in Formosa is the third floor tower study that was added on in 1902 for Ney’s husband, the philosopher and researcher, Edmund Duncan Montgomery, MD.
It is said that he wrote “many of his published works on biological science and philosophy in this secluded third floor room.”
Since 2007, the City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department has been transforming the museum’s grounds into “a historic prairie landscape, evocative of what Ney experienced, fought for and loved every day of her life in Austin.”
Ney is considered “an early leader of the Texas Women’s Movement and a vigorous Civil Rights, education and arts advocate.” She was “one of a kind.”
If you go:
Elisabet Ney Museum
304 E. 44th St., Austin, TX, 78751
Hours: Wednesday – Sunday, 12 p.m. – 5 p.m.
Street parking. Because this is in a residential neighborhood, suggest using your tow car.
Upcoming free events:
• In the Spring, check out “Ney Day” that celebrates “the renowned sculptor’s legacy” with live music and booths from a variety of arts and social groups. It’s an afternoon of creative culture and family fun.
• Look for the annual Autumn “POLKAPOCALYPSE!” when “awesome Polka bands will rock the boots off your lederhosen with a crazy mix of Tejano, Czech, German, Polish, Gypsy, and Norteno sounds.”
Photos: All courtesy of Elisabet Ney Museum.