Elisabet Ney Museum in Austin Texas
We were first introduced to Elisabet Ney through a book given to us by our friend Steve. The book is A Twist at the End by Steven Saylor. It is historical fiction around a group of murders in 1880s Texas with the author O. Henry (who’s real name is William Sydney Porter) playing a fictional role in the proceedings. In the book, Porter borrows books from Elisabet Ney and her husband Dr. Edmund Montgomery, and visits their castle-like house in Austin. Of course, we wanted to visit this castle-like house – and when it recently opened after closing from the pandemic, we paid a visit to the Elisabet Ney Museum in the Hyde Park area of Austin on a warm June 2021 afternoon.
Formosa – The Studio Home That is Now the Elisabet Ney Museum
As can be seen in the photos below, “castle-like” is a quite apropos description of the Elisabet Ney studio named “Formosa”. The building, designed by the sculptress, was built in 1892. It has a basement (which is rare for Austin then and now), a first floor for sculpting with a small loft where Elisabet Ney slept, a second floor built mainly for Elisabet’s husband Dr. Edmund Montgomery and a Tower Study which is in the castle turret on the right of the building.
The building / Museum is in a residential area. The grounds are partially surrounded by a stone fence. When we were there the interior greenery had not been trimmed – but there was some signage indicating that this greenery consisted of native plants that may not need pruning.
In A Twist at the End, Saylor describes Formosa as follows:
Formosa turns out to be not a castle, exactly, but a massive building of rough-hewn limestone blocks, set in a rustic parklike estate. The architecture is eccentric, to say the least; a classical pediment over a porch with votive niches on either side suggests a Roman temple, wheel the quaint tower with it crenellated top might be a vision from the Brothers Grimm.A Twist At The End, Steven Saylor, page 432
Gallery One – European sculptures
Upon walking into the Elisabet Ney Museum we were greeted by a very knowledgeable and kind young lady who, after a temperature check, gave us the overview of the place and of the former resident, designer and architect, Elisabet Ney.
The front door opens to the main gallery. There are two galleries (and one room to the left that is used for special exhibitions). The first gallery contains works Elisabet Ney did while in Europe. The two sculptures that greet visitors are a self-portrait of the sculptress and a sculpture of her husband. Elisabet Ney lived from January 26, 1833 to June 29, 1907. Her husband, Dr. Edmund Montgomery, lived from March 19, 1835 to April 17, 1911. Both are buried at the Liendo Plantation in Waller Texas which they owned for many years.
According to brochures handed to us as we entered, the self-portrait sculpture above was Ney’s only know self-portrait. She made casts of her face, neck and shoulders in the 1860s, and did this sculpture in 1903.
The larger sculpture on the left in the photo below is of Ludwig II of Bavaria, Elisabet Ney’s main patron in Europe. The final marble copy is at the King Ludwig II Museum in the Herrenchiemssee (one of the so-called “Mad King Ludwig’s Castles” along with Linderhof Palace and Neuschwanstein (show in the picture by the sculpture)). We have visited all three of these castles long ago, and no doubt saw some of Elisabet Ney’s work there without knowing.
The small sculpture in the middle (to the right of the photo of Neuschwanstein) is Saint Sebastian. It was Ney’s first professional commission in 1859 following the completion of her art training in Berlin.
The photos below are of a work called “Prometheus Bound”, done in 1865. Ney had it transported from Europe in the 1890s, but it was damaged. She was repairing the arm when she suffered a fatal heart attack. Her fingerprints can be seen in the shoulder repairs.
In the set of sculptures below, Otto von Bismark is at the far left (with the ‘stache) and the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer is on the far right. Schopenhauer was a large influence on both Elisabet Ney and her husband.
In 1857, when Elisabet Ney opened her Berlin studio, she set about to persuade the famous philosopherArthur Schopenhauer, to sit for a portrait. She and her fiancé, Edmund Montgomery, possibly reasoned that the shock of having a portrait of the elderly, reclusive and misogynist Schopenhauer executed by the relatively unknown young woman sculptor would immediately bring Ney’s work to the attention of the public and would-be clients. The shock for Edmund and Elisabet was to be how easy it was and the degree of success Schopenhauer’s portrait by Elisabet elicited. Schopenhauer not only agreed to sit for his portrait; the obvious pleasure that he took in Ney’s work – and in her company – is documented in a series of letters about “the incomparable Ney” to friends and colleagues. Ney’s rendering of his portrait pleased both Shopenhauer and the critics, and “Miss Elisabet Ney” became a name to be noted.
Elisabet’s time with Schopenhauer also yielded a significant growth in ideas and ideals.According to Bride Taylor, “He fixed in her that contempt for social ideals.” Under Schopenhauer’s influence, Elisabet Ney began “to construct for herself a theory of life, a mixture of idealism, materialism and radicalism held in check by an essential purity of mind.” Elisabet’s readings in Schopenhauer would also nurture a growing conviction of the importance of the arts as “instruments of human enlightenment.”Board in Elisabet Ney Museum titled “Meetings with Great People 1857 – 1867”
Gallery Two – Texas sculptures
On January 14, 1871 a pregnant Elisabet, Edmund and their housekeeper left Germany for America. They stayed in Georgia for a while, then Elisabet traveled to Texas in 1873 looking for a new home. She was shown the Liendo Plantation and she and Edmund bought it on March 4, 1873.
Entering into the second gallery, there is a similar arrangement of bust sculptures as was setup on the other side of the wall in the first. Among these ten busts are Oran Milo Roberts (the first bust Ney did in the United States), Sul Ross and John Henninger Reagan.
The statue below is Lady Macbeth wiping the imaginary blood from her hands, one of Ney’s final works done in 1902. This one is plaster; the marble version is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Interesting placement allows the bust of Sam Houston to keep watch over her.
The wall across from the entrance to gallery two is a who’s who of Texas history. Several works depicting Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, Albert Sidney Johnston and William Jennings Bryan line the far wall.
The gallery of photos below the busts and full sized statues of Stephen Fuller Austin and Sam Houston. Marble versions of the statues were commissioned for the Texas Capital and the National Sanctuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol.
From the brochure handed out:
The State of Texas commissioned Ney to create a monumental statuary piece of Albert Sidney Johnston for the Texas State Cemetery. The plan came about as early as the 1890s, but was not commissioned until 1901, and was fraught with difficulties. This model was donated to the museum in the 1920s by the Texas Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who had painted the original white plaster to look like bronze.“Gallery Two” brochure, Elisabet Ney Museum
Against the wall opposite the Texas history figures is the bust of Christ in marble shown in the photo below, modeled in 1896 and cut in 1904.
Upstairs at the Elisabet Ney Museum
In his book, Steven Saylor describes the layout of Formosa as follows:
The kitchen is in the basement….The grounds cover a city block. The landscaping has been left mostly wild, with prickly pears, tall grass and thickets. Waller Creek runs through the back of the property, shaded by trees, the banks traversed by a stone dam suitable for trolls to dwell beneath. As for the house, he has never in his life been in a dwelling so peculiarly laid out. The ground floor consists of two large studio rooms filled with Ney’s work, both flooded with northern light. The larger of the two rooms has a curtained loft in one corner which serves as Ney’s boudoir.
A flight of stairs in the foyer leads up to the second floor, most of which consists of a single large room that is evidently the domain of Dr. Montgomery. Set against one wall is a crudely made table strewn with laboratory equipment and scientific instruments, flanked by bookcases full of academic treatises and journals.A Twist At The End, Steven Saylor, page 438
The four posters in the room on the second story briefly review the life of Dr. Edmund Montgomery, Ney’s husband for more than 40 years. Montgomery and Ney may have been the most interesting couple in Texas at the time. He attended the University of Heidelberg as a medical student (where he met Elisabet Ney) and also attended the University of Berlin. Edmund received a Doctor of Medicine from the University of Wurzberg in 1858. He wrote many papers and books, was one of the advisors in the founding of Prairie View A&M (when the lived at Liendo Plantation) and was President of the Texas Academy of Science. Edmund Montgomery died in 1911 and is buried next to Elisabet Ney at Liendo Plantation.
In addition to holding some of their original furnishings, this room also has photos and descriptions of all the homes where the couple lived.
The photo below shows the narrow winding cast iron stair case that leads to the tower.
Again, a description from Steven Saylor’s book:
His accommodation is a chamber at the top of the tower, attainable only by a narrow, cast-iron spiral staircase. The tiny room contains a child-size chair and table, miniature fireplace, a built-in bookcase and a chamber pot.A Twist At The End, Steven Saylor, page 438
The room was intended as a study for Dr. Montgomery. The bookcase with a door leads out to the upper roof, where the couple used to sit (it is blocked now; yes, I did try it!).
The Elisabet Ney Museum is free to the public and is currently open noon to 5 Wednesday through Sunday. The curator did mention to us that the will be closing in the future to replace/repair some of the doors and windows thanks to a recent grant, so we’d suggest checking their website.