A youthful Sam Houston, his image captured in white marble, gazes resolutely into the distance inside the Texas Capitol in Austin. Sculpted by Elisabet Ney in 1892, first in clay, then plaster, and later in marble, Houston is portrayed not in the finery of a state official, but in a fringed buckskin suit, his sword at his side.
Ney, who was one of Texas’ first professional sculptors, was born in 1833 in Münster, Germany. She learned the art of working with marble from her father, a master stonecutter, in his workshop—a place normally off-limits to women. Years later, that experience paid off as she won commissions to sculpt many of the great men of Europe, including German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Italian military hero Giuseppe Garibaldi, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and King George V of Hanover.
In about 1871, Ney and her husband, Dr. Edmund Montgomery, moved from Europe to the United States, settling briefly in Georgia before heading to the frontier land of Texas. Ney was quoted in a German newspaper as saying, “After so many of the great men of the civilized world sat for me, I would like to model the greatest of the wild men.”
In 1873, the couple purchased Liendo Plantation, one of Texas’ earliest cotton plantations, in Waller County. It fit the vision of the utopian existence they longed for. As the story goes, Ney stepped onto the second-story veranda of the plantation’s graceful old house, spread her arms wide, and announced, “Here will I live. And here will I die!”
In her new home, she immediately raised eyebrows with her odd clothing—long, flowing white flannel robes and, occasionally, pants. Ney cut her hair short and rode like a man, with one leg on each side of the horse; on long trips, she carried a hammock behind her saddle so she could stop and rest. She kept her maiden name, leading folks to speculate about the couple’s marital status. And because she insisted on introducing her husband as “my best friend,” the fires of gossip flared.
Edmund and Elisabet had two sons. Their oldest child, Arthur, died of diphtheria shortly before his second birthday, soon after the family arrived at Liendo. Ney was inconsolable. The doctor advised that the body be cremated to avoid the spread of disease, and rumors persisted that the couple accomplished this sorrowful task in the fireplace at the plantation, further distancing them from their suspicious neighbors.
For the next 20 years, Ney concentrated on raising her youngest son, Lorne. She ran Liendo, often riding out to repair fences in her pantaloons. Edmund, a physician, scientist and philosopher, worked in his laboratory on the premises when he wasn’t traveling.
In the early 1880s, Gov. Oran Roberts, already a friend of the family, invited Ney to Austin and asked her to help with the visual aspects of the new Capitol being planned. Eventually, during her work in Austin, Ney met Benedette Tobin, chairwoman of a committee overseeing the creation of a Texas exhibition at the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago. Although Ney was viewed as a curiosity by many, Tobin commissioned her in 1892 to sculpt statues of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin for display at the 1893 exposition. Ney agreed to waive her artist’s fee, provided the committee raised the money to have the statues done in marble within 10 years.
The statues were first done in clay, then coated with material to make a mold. They were next cast in plaster. Only the statue of Houston was ready in time for the Chicago exposition. The Texas Legislature eventually appropriated money to have both statues done in marble, and these versions now greet visitors just inside the Capitol’s south entrance. Duplicates of the statues are also on display in Washington, D.C., in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.
Ney chose to portray Houston and Austin as frontier noblemen dressed in buckskins. With practiced hands, she instilled the heroes’ spirits into the stone, using engravings and photographs as guides. When criticized for making Houston’s statue taller than Austin’s (representing the men’s approximate heights of 6 feet 2 inches and 5 feet 7 inches, respectively), Ney answered in a letter: “If I am correctly informed, God made the two men. I merely reproduced their likenesses. If you are dissatisfied about them, you should take the matter up with God.”
Meanwhile, in 1892, Ney began the construction of a studio in Austin’s Hyde Park area. She envisioned her new studio—named Formosa, Portuguese for “beautiful”—as a place where she could work among the state’s political and intellectual leaders. It was built of native limestone in a neoclassical design; it was her own miniature, medieval castle on Waller Creek.
Slowly, more commissions came her way, and Ney traveled between Liendo and Austin to work on busts of Texas dignitaries, such as Sul Ross and Francis Lubbock, both governors. Although she had few close friends, her studio became a gathering place for Austin artists and intellectuals.
A few years after her death in Austin in 1907, a group of Ney’s admirers formed the Texas Fine Arts Association in her honor. Formosa was reopened as the Elisabet Ney Museum, which houses many of the artist’s works, including the original plaster statues of Houston and Austin. The museum is open Wednesdays through Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. A project is under way to restore the grounds’ landscaping from Ney’s time—a special nod to an artist way ahead of her time.
Martha Deeringer is a frequent contributor to Texas Co-op Power.