During Spring Break this year, my daughter and I had a once in a lifetime opportunity to travel with a group from her high school to Italy and Greece. What an amazing experience! Ancient ruins like the Colosseum and the Parthenon, gorgeous cathedrals like St. Paul’s and St. Peter’s basilicas, and artwork from paintings to sculptures to tapestries to mosaics that simply took my breath away. One of my very favorite statues was created by the incomparable Michelangelo. His depiction of Mary holding her son after he was taken down from the cross. It is called “Pieta” which means pity in Italian. Truly stunning.
Greece, of course, is also known for their statuary, and after seeing so many examples of classical art, I started wondering about some of the artists behind the statuary closer to home. As it turns out, one of the most talented sculptors of Texas heroes is a woman.
Elisabet Ney was a German-born sculptor who worked in Europe the first half of her life, perfecting her craft and becoming so accomplished, she was commissioned to create busts of such influential world leaders as Otto von Bismarck and King George V of Hanover (pictured with her in the portrait to the left). She was the first female sculptor admitted to the all-male Munich Academy of Art.
A stringent feminist, Elisabet wore trousers and rode astride like her male counterparts. She also despised the marital state, believing it to be a form of bondage for women. However, a young (and exceedingly patient) Scottish medical student named Edward Montgomery eventually wore her down. After 10 years, he finally convinced her to marry him in 1863. That same year, he contracted tuberculosis. After struggling with the disease for many years, Montgomery took a friend’s advice and moved to the United States in 1871, to a resort for consumptives in Georgia. In 1873, after the birth of two sons, the couple moved to Waller County, Texas.
In the 1880’s, Elisabet was invited to Austin by the governor of Texas, and her artistic career gained new life. In 1892 she built a studio in north Austin and began to seek commissions. Right away, she was commissioned by the Board of Lady Managers of the Chicago World’s Fair Association to create marble figures of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston to be on display at the World’s Fair. They can now be seen in the Texas State Capitol building.
Upon her death in 1907, her husband sold her studio to Ella Dibrell, and per his wife’s wishes, bequeathed the contents to the University of Texas at Austin. Four years later, Dibrell and other investors established the Texas Fine Arts Association in Elisabet’s honor. Today, the studio is the site of the Elisabet Ney Museum.
This passionate, strong-willed woman left her mark on Texas that still exists more than 100 years after her death. What a lasting legacy!
I can barely draw a stick figure, so art like this always leaves me amazed.
What about you?
- Have you encountered a particular sculpture or painting that touched you in some way?
- Have you ever wondered about the life of the artist who created it?