You don’t know it, but you know Elisabet Ney.
Her sculptures are part of your mental landscape. She’s credited by many for making Austin the Austin it is today – a center of culture. For anyone interested in the arts or Texas history, visiting the quiet little museum in the midst of a wildlife habitat at 304 E 44th Street in Hyde Park is a must.
In the Austin of the 1880s, German sculptor Elisabet Ney insisted she be treated as an individual. The daughter of a stonemason, she won over misogynists and pushed herself to the highest power circles in Europe and United States. She always had short hair, which was extremely unusual for the times. She wore comfortable clothes, refusing corsets. She never took her husband’s name.
Her motto from early adulthood was Sursum, which means “rise up” in Latin.
Ney in Austin
The Elisabet Ney Museum is located in the exceptional studio Ney designed in Austin at the urging of a former Texas governor. She slept in a tent in the back during construction.
The walls are limestone, and the metal stars, which look like modern Austin design, were designed by Ney in the 1890s. The windows face north for indirect sunlight, and swing up to allow large pieces such as “Prometheus” to be transported into or out of the studio.
Ney had a loft put in, and climbed a ladder to sit on the roof under the stars in what Ney called her “sky trap.” The basement still has a bin full of dried clay Ney dug from the banks of the Colorado River.
Ney was born in 1833 in Münster, Germany, to a stonemason and his wife. When Ney decided at 17 to be a sculptor, her strict Catholic parents were horrified. Not only did they expect her to become a German housewife, but they believed her desire to be an artist indecent. Ney’s response was to lock herself in her room and go on a hunger strike.
Her parents contacted the local bishop, who met with Ney. After the meeting, the bishop told her parents that Ney would be an artist whether they liked it or not. As a result, she was sent off to the art academy in Munich.
At first, the academy would not accept a woman. She persevered and was let in on a trial basis as the first woman to study sculpture at the institution. She excelled, and was sent to Berlin where she studied under the leading European sculptor, Christian Rauch.
Breathing Fire into Clay, Plaster, Marble and Bronze
At the Elisabet Ney Museum, the indirect northern light wafts over the forms of European and American dignitaries. Visitors immediately recognize the iconic Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin statues.
Ney was criticized for the way she portrayed the Texas legends. She modeled Houston in buckskin with a Cherokee blanket over his shoulder. Texas politicians of the day claimed Ney portrayed Houston as an Indian and played on that day’s prevailing racism toward Native Americans.When criticized for portraying Austin as smaller than Houston, Ney responded, “Don’t blame me. Blame God.”
At her death in 1907, she still was at work on a giant Prometheus, who was punished for bringing fire to humans. Beside the scar where Zeus’ eagles plucked at his liver daily, you can see Ney’s fingermarks in his shoulder.
Go see Ney’s art. You can still feel her fire smolder in the mute forms she created.
J. Alan Nelson is a writer, actor and attorney. His written work also appears on Texas Business.
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