I first became aquatinted with Elisabet Ney when I read Steven Saylor’s, A Twist at the End. His attention to the details of early Austin made the novel well worth the read. Add to that the mystery of one of our nations first documented serial killers (though not called that until the twentieth century) and a little fictional intrigue regarding a great American author O’Henry, before he was O’Henry, and this book became one of my favorites. Saylor’s description of Elisabet Ney begged me to get to know her more.
Texas history buffs will recall her name as the artist who captured the images of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin in marble. These statutes can be viewed in the Texas State Capitol. However, Saylor didn’t stop with the creation of statues for his Elisabet Ney. His rebellious but still “proper” woman of the times plays a pivotal role in helping the established O’Henry come to terms with his past. After reading this book, I had to know more about her.
She wore pants. She was the first woman awarded entry into the Munich Academy of Art.She kept her maiden name when she married. (Practically unheard of at the time.) She sculpted such famous people as Jacob Grimm, Wagner, and Ludwig II of Bavaria. These can be seen at Formosa, Ney’s Austin home and studio and now a museum dedicated to her and celebrating the arts in Austin.
Elizabeth Ney was more than an artist. There are countless quotes from her stating that she wanted to be where important people were, to discuss topics of science, art, and politics. And that’s what she did, first in her native Austria and then in Texas.
Walking into her former home and studio, her marbled bust, carved by herself, met me. Looking into that face it’s easy to be deceived. Pretty, but nothing special. Solemn, but not terse, perhaps even a little friendly. But when I stood there gazing, those blank eyes looked back at me. The tassels of her hair, kept but not fashioned, settled around a face confident with it belonged to. Her shoulders are back but not proud. They secure a head that would lean in and listen if I spoke. This was the head of a woman who did what she wanted when women were supposed to be ladies meek and mild. And yet as many men came to her studio to pose and discuss life as women.
On the pedestal in front of me, I looked into the face of a woman worth admiring not because she was a woman doing what women weren’t supposed to do, but a person admired for doing what she wanted and enjoying life to its fullest.