When most people think of Texas in the late 19th Century, they think of cattle drives and stage coaches, one-room schoolhouses and dirt roads. They think of saloons, not salons. But there is more to the story.
Long before anyone heard the phrase “women’s libber” Elisabet Ney fit the mold. Born in Münster, Westphalia, in 1833, she grew up helping her father, a stonecutter who fashioned statuary and gravestones. At nineteen, certain that she could become a portrait sculptor and “meet the great persons of the world,” she finally convinced her parents to allow her to enroll as the first female to study at the Academy of Arts in Munich. After graduating at the top of her class, she went on to study in Berlin with Christian Daniel Rauch, Germany’s greatest living sculptor. Rauch introduced Ney to the artistic and elite in Europe’s social and political world. Her talent and charm led to friendships with Europe’s notables who in turn opened the door for her to meet others. The reclusive philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer agreed to sit for Ney and was so pleased with his portrait and with their conversations that he wrote a series of letters about “the incomparable Ney”. She developed friendships with “great persons of the world,” and gained fame for her portraits such as King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Otto von Bismarck, and Giuseppe Garibaldi.
After a ten-year courtship, she finally agreed to marry Dr. Edmund Montgomery, a Scottish physician who shared her idealist vision of a world of peace and beauty. For the rest of her life she called Montgomery her “best friend.” The two dreamers, looking for a utopia, settled for a couple of years in Georgia before moving with their two little boys to Texas in 1872. They bought Liendo a 1,100-acre former slave plantation about 50 miles northwest of Houston. Here they planned an idyllic life of Montgomery continuing his scientific research; Ney running the plantation and raising their children in an artistic and scientific environment away from the temptations and influences of contemporary life. Ney often said she gave up her career to “sculpt flesh and blood.”
Things didn’t work out quite like they planned. The oldest boy died and over time the other child began resenting his mother’s controls. Further, “Miss Ney,” as she insisted on being called, shocked her neighbors in the rural community by trying to help the area freedmen change their lifestyle, by refusing to say she was married, by wearing bloomer-like britches, and by riding about the plantation like a man astride her horse.
After twenty years struggling to make a success of the plantation, Miss Ney answered a request to execute statues of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston for the Texas Exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. She moved to Austin, the state’s capital city, and built Formosa, a small, classically styled limestone studio reminiscent of a Greek temple.
Formosa became the social center for culture in Austin. One friend described the gathering place as a “salon” for serious intellectual conversations, an unusual description in a town better know for its saloons.
The next fifteen years offered the idyllic life for Miss Ney. She and Dr. Montgomery regularly traveled the 100-miles between Austin and Liendo; he continued his scientific research in the solitude of the plantation; and she pursued her work in the stimulating environment at Formosa.
Her most ideal work, Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, is displayed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art. The Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin statues stand in the Texas State Capitol and in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol.
Upon her death in 1907, she was buried at Liendo where four years later her best friend Dr. Edmund Montgomery was laid beside her. In 1911 Elisabet Ney’s friends and supporters founded the Texas Fine Arts Association in her honor. Today, Formosa houses The Ney Museum and 100-piece portrait collection and offers a range of educational programs, lectures, exhibits, and workshops.