History of Austin

Here's the history behind Elisabet Ney, Austin's first feminist

Here's the history behind Elisabet Ney, Austin's first feminist

Elisabet Ney Museum
Elisabet Ney Museum in Hyde Park. Photo courtesy of Elisabet Ney Museum
Elisabet Ney studio
Ney in her studio. Photo courtesy of Elisabet Ney Museum
Elisabet Ney Museum
Elisabet Ney studio

Throughout her life, Elisabet Ney, the legendary woman behind the museum in the historic Hyde Park neighborhood, was a force with which to be reckoned. Though German by birth, Ney, as the saying goes, got to Texas at fast as she could. Once here, she flourished as an artist and developed a reputation among her peers as a passionate feminist. This month, we learn the history behind one of Austin's most famous figures. 

Elisabet Ney: 19th century feminist
Born in Germany in 1833, Ney wanted to follow the artistic path set by her famous stone-carving father. When he denounced his daughter's dream of becoming a sculptor, Ney went on a weeks-long hunger strike, refusing to follow her parents' advice and become a German housewife. Eventually, she convinced her family of her career aspirations, and went on to become the first female student at the Munich Academy of Art.

In 1853, Ney met her match through mutual friends who introduced her to a young medical student, scientist, and philosopher named Dr. Edmund Montgomery. Although Ney didn't believe in the institution of marriage, viewing it as a form of bondage, the couple married in 1863. In an unusual move at the time, Ney kept her maiden name.

The couple left Europe in 1871, and settled briefly in Georgia before moving to Texas in 1872. In the early 1880s, Ney and her husband were invited by Texas governor Oran Roberts to move to Austin from their antebellum home, the Liendo plantation near Hempstead, Texas.

A return to art
The move to Austin was fortunate for Ney as she resumed her sculpting career after a decades-long hiatus. As she and Montgomery searched for homes in Austin, they found a 2.45-acre tract of land in the Hyde Park neighborhood, what was then the edge of town. The sizable property was perfect for a sculpting studio, entertaining artists, and outdoor activities. The main studio and reception room were completed in 1892 and a basement, studio and parlor room were added in 1902. Eventually, the limestone compound was christened Formosa, or "beautiful" in Portuguese. 

Outside of her art studio, Ney was a noted feminist and influenced the thinking of many in her inner circle: "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."

Ney's time at Formosa was a busy and artistic time in her life. She sculpted a number of well-known pieces including the life-size figure of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston that reside in the Texas State Capitol. Other pieces of Ney's work are on display in the U.S. Capitol and at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. and at Elisabet Ney Museum in Hyde Park. Not only did Ney spend time sculpting in her studio, she was also actively involved in cultural events in the community and often entertained artists and dignitaries at Formosa and creek side on the rugged grounds of the property.

Ney died at her studio on June 29, 1907. After her death, Montgomery sold Formosa and left his wife's artwork and artifacts to the University of Texas. He died four years later and was buried next to Ney in Hempstead.

From Hyde Park homestead to city treasure
In 1911, Formosa was given to the Texas Fine Arts Association (now The Contemporary Austin) and was renamed the Elisabet Ney Museum. The City of Austin took ownership and began operating the property in 1941, and the museum was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1972. 

Today, the museum is celebrated as being the first art studio built in the state of Texas. Grasses and wildflowers have been carefully cultivated to reflect the original landscaping at Formosa in the late 19th century, and the museum's collection includes bronze sculptures, and plaster and marble busts of famous figures like Otto Von Bismarck, King Ludwig II, William Jennings Bryan, and Lady Macbeth. Although many of Ney's masterpieces belong to museums scattered around the world, approximately half of her completed artwork is housed in the small museum in Hyde Park.

A new generation of artists
A relatively new program offered by the museum is the Elisabet Ney Writer-in-Residence program. Artists apply for the two-week residency in the fall or spring, and are housed in the museum's tower room where they can work free of distractions.

The most recent recipient for 2017 is Lisa Olstein, an associate professor in UT's English department. "It's a special space," says Olstein, who used the time to finish a draft of her new book. "Up there with the breeze coming from all directions, I felt simultaneously tucked away and as if I had set sail. The gifts of time, solitude, and space are precious to most writers."

What was so remarkable about the Ney Museum, Olstein elaborates, is the "commitment to multi-faceted, active engagement with living artists as an ongoing tribute to Ney's spirit."

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The Elisabet Ney Museum is located at 304 E. 44th Street and is open Wednesday-Sunday from noon until 5 pm. For more information, call (512) 974-1625 or visit them online.