Elisabet Ney Museum offers inspiration in art and the story of a life

Anna-Kay Reeves

In the early days of settlement in Texas, it took grit to make it for men and women alike. German-American sculptress Elisabet Ney had enough grit to not only make it, but make beautiful art as well. 

The Elisabet Ney Museum at 304 44th St. is a testament to Ney’s often-difficult, but productive life. An early feminist and political refugee, Ney’s life maintains relevancy even today. The work displayed in the museum as well as at the State Capitol and several sites on campus are proof of the life she lived in defiance of discouragement and discrimination. 

“(Ney) went on a hunger strike to get into art school,” museum docent Suzanne Kelley said. “Her parents didn’t think it was right for a girl to go, but she was determined.”

When Ney’s family called a priest to soften her resolve, he told them she was “an immovable object” like the sculptures she so desperately wanted to make. So, by force of will, Ney began her artistic journey. 

Ney went on to be commissioned to sculpt royalty and dignitaries in Germany before leaving everything behind to come to America. Ney fled after suspicion arose that she was a political spy for the unification of Germany.

“She came here and people thought she was a witch,” Kelley said. “She kept her hair short, wore leggings instead of dresses and didn’t ride side-saddle. This was the 1800s. People thought she was crazy.”

Gallery attendant Amy Andrews said Ney’s art created a stir as well. She was a realist sculptor, not sparing even powerful subjects their imperfections. The Ney holds many pieces that prove this fact, including her famous sculptures of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin.

“(The statues) are literally life-size, -actually these men’s heights,” Andrews said. “Austin’s family had an issue with that, because Austin was only 5-feet-7 inches. They asked Ney why he wasn’t taller, and she told them to take it up with God.”

In addition to Ney’s work, the museum also keeps a gallery of contemporary work selected for its relevance to Ney’s life and mission on rotation. Andrews said it’s usually a female artist or female-focused work in keeping with Ney’s feminist legacy.

For museum site coordinator Oliver Franklin, Ney’s life and work are a story that has remained relevant over the years as marginalized groups fight for representation and appreciation.

“(Ney) suffered a lot in her life,” Franklin said. “Even in Germany, which was a bit more liberal at the time, she was seen as very strange. Then here, she was in a different country on top of being this very hardcore uncompromising woman who had never even taken her husband’s last name. People were suspicious of her and it made it difficult to find a community here.”

Franklin said the museum is working to have events that help Austinites become aware that the castle-like house in Hyde Park is more than just nice architecture. It’s the oldest art gallery in Texas and full of not only fine art, but a story of perseverance. 

The Ney is open to the public Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. with no entrance fee and optional donations.