The intrepid Texas sculptor, and museum founder, was decades ahead of her time
by Terry Huntingdon Tydings
While the exterior of the Elisabet Ney Museum appears like a small castle somewhere in the mountains of Europe, the interior has few rooms. Two on the first floor display many of Ney’s sculptures, some that she brought from Europe, others that she worked on here. Her sculptures, and the story behind this extraordinary woman, are extremely powerful.
As a teenager — more than a century before the Women’s Liberation movement began — Ney announced her wish to become a sculptor. Her parents opposed her, so she went on a weeks-long hunger strike. They finally relented, and she became the first female sculpture student at the Munich Academy of Art.
At age twenty-four, Ney opened her studio in Berlin. She contacted German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, and requested to sculpt his portrait. She wasn’t aware that he was a well-known misogynist when he dismissed her out-of-hand, insisting that the notion of being sculpted by “this little girl” was preposterous. But that didn’t stop her. She sat in his office for three days until he relented. The Schopenhauer bust became an artistic success, and led to many notable commissions.
During this time, Ney met Edmund Montgomery, a Scottish medical student at the University of Heidelberg. Although she considered the institution of marriage as a state of bondage for women, she eventually accepted Montgomery’s proposal.
Following the wedding, Ney refused to use Montgomery’s name, and is reported to have said: “Women are fools to be bothered with housework. Look at me; I sleep in a hammock which requires no making up. I break an egg and sip it raw. I make lemonade in a glass, and then rinse it, and my housework is done for the day.”
In the autumn of 1870, Ney became pregnant. Her husband, who had been diagnosed with tuberculosis years earlier, received a letter from a friend in poor health who had moved to the United States and settled in Thomasville, Georgia. His friend described Thomasville as “Earth’s Paradise.” Even though she was pregnant, the couple shipped out for the United States, leaving the majority of their possessions behind.
Things didn’t turn out in Georgia as they had hoped, so they looked elsewhere. Ney traveled alone to Texas and was shown Liendo Plantation in Hempstead, Texas. Montgomery joined her, purchased the plantation and, for the next ten years, while he tended to his medical research, Ney tended to the plantation.
In the 1880s, Governor Oran Roberts invited her to visit Austin. There, she was commissioned to model figures of Texas heroes, Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin. She then used the money she received from these lucrative commissions to purchase two and a half acres in Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood, and built her studio.
When critics complained that the Houston statue was seven inches taller than Austin’s, Ney replied that those were the actual heights of the men. She saltily added, “If folks have a problem, they should take the issue up with God.”
Following Ney’s death in her studio in 1907, Montgomery sold it to Ella Dancy Dibrell. Four years later, Dibrell and other friends established the Texas Fine Arts Association in Ney’s honor.
When I spoke with the Museum Site Coordinator, Oliver Franklin and told him that I was writing an article about Ney, he said, “I think that she would be very pleased with this news. You know, everything about her was about telling stories … what she did, what she said, how she dressed. It was all about storytelling.”
Elisabet Ney would be mighty proud to see what the museum named for her is accomplishing today, especially in terms of its outreach, particularly to young women. The museum’s contemporary art program focuses largely on early-and-mid-career Texas women artists and they are launching a program to work with children in under-resourced communities to help them see themselves in unique and interesting ways through self-portraiture.
The museum also oversees a variety of unique and curated events, all of which are free to the public. These range from kooky, large day-long extravaganzas like the coming perennials “Polkapocalypse” and “Ney Day,” to family-centered programs, to science and philosophy discussions.
The Elisabet Ney Museum is a bucket list “must” for Austinites and visitors alike, for anyone who relishes being educated by powerful ideas and unique art.