Introducing Elisabet Ney

Photograph of the portrait of Elisabet Ney, created by artist Adrian Lamb

Photograph of the portrait of Elisabet Ney, created by artist Adrian Lamb

An Artist is Born

Franzisca Bernadina Wilhelmina Elisabet Ney was born on January 26, 1833, in Münster, Westphalia (modern-day Germany). Her mother has been described as ladylike, attractive and devout. Her father, Johann Ney, was big, brusque, bearded, and conservative, making a comfortable living in Münster as a successful stonecutter, fashioning statuary and gravestones. 

At the age of 19, to the astonishment and dismay of her parents, Elisabet announced that she intended to leave home, travel to Berlin, and study sculpture with Christian Daniel Rauch, the master teacher of sculpture in Europe at the time. Her parents adamantly refused, saying it was unbecoming, immodest, and indecent for a well-brought up Catholic girl to go alone to Berlin. Additionally, they reminded her that women were not accepted into Berlin art schools, stating that her dream was simply impossible.

In response to their objections, Elisabet resorted to a hunger strike that required a visit from a local Bishop. After a series of "negotiations," her parents decided that, rather than going to Berlin immediately, Elisabet would first go to the predominantly Catholic Munich, where she could stay with friends of her parents and begin her studies with a private teacher. And thus, Elisabet Ney embarked on a career that would continue to surprise, inspire, and mystify. 

Education in Munich

The young Elisabet Ney set out for Munich in September 1852, applying to the Munich Academy of Art and being summarily rejected. However, she was undeterred.

After a period of study in drawing and design with a private teacher, Johann Berdelle, Elisabet returned to Academy officials and requested, again, to be admitted. Finally, they agreed to allow her to attend on a trial basis. It seems the issue was not her talent, but the disturbance she might cause in a class of young men. Four months later, having proven herself to her teachers and to her peers, Elisabet Ney was formally invited to become a regular student in the Academy's school of sculpture. This was an honor of particular significance, because it was the first such invitation ever issued to a woman; the first of many honors that were to come to the young Elisabet Ney during her lifetime.

The Move to Berlin

In July 1854, Ney graduated from the Munich Academy of Art with highest honors and set out for Berlin to fulfill her dream of studying with the great German sculptor, Christian Daniel Rauch. She was awarded a scholarship to the Berlin Academy of Art on the strength of her high recommendations from Munich. She thus secured the opportunity to study with Rauch who was very much in demand as a noted teacher. Again she prevailed, to her delight and to the surprise of many.

Under the guidance of Rauch, Ney established early in her career a precise regard for accuracy and authenticity in every aspect of her work, and she was able to combine in her works both classical and realistic elements for which Rauch himself was famous. She proved a worthy student and became regarded by many in the art world as "Rauch's favorite pupil." 

During her years in Munich and Berlin the young, impressionable Elisabet was also provided opportunities for an education of a significantly different kind.

In Munich, for the first time in her life, Elisabet was immersed in the vibrant environment of a beautiful city where everyone seemed to share a sensitivity and appreciation for beauty and art. King Ludwig I had gone to great lengths to beautify Munich for his people, all of whom he thought should be surrounded with beauty.

Most importantly, in Berlin Elisabet was at last able "to meet the great persons of the world," a cherished goal she revealed later to a Texas friend. As a student of Rauch, she was provided entry into Berlin's leading artistic and intellectual circles. 

The sculptures featured on the next page, "European Sculptures," reflect the incredible body of work Elisabet produced of these "great persons of the world." These include figures like Giuseppe Garibaldi, Jacob Grimm, King Ludwig II, and more. 

Introducing Elisabet Ney