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Woman Artist on the Texas Frontier : THE ART OF THE WOMAN The Life and Work of Elisabet Ney by Emily Fourmy Cutrer (University of Nebraska Press: $24.95; 261 pp., illustrated; 0-8032-1438-3)

September 04, 1988|Martha A. Sandweiss | Sandweiss is the current recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support her research on photographers in the 19th-Century West. and

Sculptor Elisabet Ney became, in her lifetime, the stuff of Texas legend, attracting attention in her adopted homeland as much for her unconventional life style as for her work. Her public independence from her husband, her insistent use of her maiden name, and her unfashionable but comfortable dress all drew as much notice as the life-size statues and portrait busts that had previously established for her in Europe the reputation as one of the leading women sculptors of the day.

Born in Westphalia, Germany, in 1833, Ney left home at age 19 to become the first woman to study in the sculpture department of the prestigious Munich Academy. She then moved to Berlin to work with the aging academic sculptor Christian Daniel Rauch. With her training complete, she determined to sculpt and "meet the great persons of the world."

She conquered her would-be subjects with seeming ease. Jacob Grimm, Alexander von Humboldt, and Schopenhauer all sat for her. Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian revolutionary leader, succumbed to her request for a sitting in 1865, and his ally, Prussian leader Otto von Bismark, posed for his portrait two years later. There is some suggestion that Ney was involved in political intrigue on Garibaldi's behalf and that her subsequent full-length statue of the reclusive King Ludwig II of Bavaria was undertaken at the suggestion of Bismark, who was eager to bring Bavaria into his unified Germany.

In 1871, Ney abruptly left Germany with her Scottish husband, Edmund Montgomery, to seek her fortune in the United States. Though some have speculated that she left Europe for political reasons, Emily Fourmy Cutrer, author of this first scholarly biography of Ney, suggests Ney was drawn by the vision of a simple utopian life in the New World. Trading her heady life with the "great persons" of Europe for rural life, she settled first in a log house in Georgia, then, in 1872, moved to Liendo, a decaying antebellum estate near the small community of Hempstead, Tex.

In rural Texas, Ney's career foundered. Her home crumbled around her. Her oldest son died at age 2, and her younger son became a bitter disappointment. Stories and rumors about her flew, encouraged in part by Ney herself. She and Montgomery became isolated from their local community and never tried to forge connections with the state's large German community. Sculpture commissions proved hard to come by.

Ney's big break came in 1892 when the women of the state World's Fair Exhibit Assn. commissioned her to do two statues of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin for the Texas exhibition at the Columbian Exhibition, statues that now represent Texas in the national capital. The promise of work impelled Ney to build a neoclassical studio in Austin, the Texas city she thought would be most conducive to her art. From this time on, Ney became a more public presence in her adopted state, fighting the Philistines and "tombstone artists" of Texas who could not appreciate her work and would not support her plans for an art academy.

If great men had been the patrons of her art in Europe, in Texas Ney's greatest backers were women. In a fluid frontier society where fortunes and political alliances were quickly made and unmade, they--not their husbands--had the time and inclination to support the arts. Following Ney's death in 1907, a small group of her women friends worked to preserve her Austin studio as a museum and generated the hagiography that perpetuated Ney's flamboyant self-image.

Cutrer's thoroughly researched text provides a more detailed and complex image of Ney. Though the sculptor's story is sometimes obscured by a wealth of minor detail, Ney still emerges as a fascinating figure almost willfully out of step with her times, forever challenging her fellow Texans to understand her. It was not so much a heroic stance as a defiant one and, ultimately, it worked against her. She seems to have misunderstood her neighbors as much as they misunderstood her and so, despite her great talent, she was thwarted in her self-appointed mission to bring art to the frontier.

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