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Meet Hyde Park's First Eccentric Artist

Today's Wayback Wednesday marks the 182nd birthday of Elisabet Ney. The renowned sculptor was born in Munster, Germany on January 26, 1833, and was the first female sculpting student at the Munich Academy of Art and became a celebrated sculptor throughout Europe in the 1850s and 1860s, crafting busts of philosopher Arthur Schoepenhaur, Germany's first chancellor Otto von Bismarck and even Jacob Grimm, one of the two eponymous fairy tale-writing brothers.

In 1872, Ney and her husband Dr. Edmund Montgomery moved to Texas, buying land near in Waller County outside of Houston and later moving to Hyde Park in 1892. Her home and studio, originally called "Formosa," now houses a museum commemorating her art. Her sculptures adorn the Texas State Capitol, the United States Capitol and, perhaps most famously, the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art.

Ney all but halted her career after the move to Waller County, where she raised her son Lorne with her husband and managed the plantation on which they lived. But it was a meeting with then-Gov. Oran Roberts that first brought her to Austin, and inspired her to continue her art once more. In 1885, Ney sculpted a bust of him, which was her first project since the 1874. In 1892, she spent $1,500 to build her studio, Formosa, in the once-distant suburb of Hyde Park.

"Lady Macbeth" was Ney's favorite of her sculptures. It was completed in 1905, two years before her death and is displayed in the Smithsonian National Museum of American Art.

It was after the move that she completed her most acclaimed works — by Texans, at least: her statues of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin that flank the entrance to the Capitol's rotunda. She was originally commissioned to sculpt the statues of both by the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, where she unveiled busts of the two Texas leaders. She was also paid $32,000 by the Texas Legislature for full-length marble statues, and replicas of those were later sent to the U.S. Capitol.

It was at her home in Hyde Park that she also completed her most famous work, "Lady Macbeth," which depicts Shakespeare's guilt-wracked Scottish queen.

The piece was both an exploration of the fictional character and a representation of Ney's own remorse and shortcomings as a parent. Ney wasn't the model of Victorian reservation, which to her was a point of pride. She never took her husband's name and often criticized common social norms, once saying:

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.

This no-frills attitude also translated to Ney's parenting. Her son Lorne was only allowed to wear togas and couldn't play with other kids his age.

The statue closely resembles a younger Ney, and she expressed a connection with the character because of that strained relationship and the death of her first son Arthur, who died at age two. While "Macbeth" became her most acclaimed work, it was also her last. She died on June 29, 1907 and Formosa was sold to the Dibrell family, who converted it into a museum.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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