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Immigration to the United States
After fleeing Europe in late 1870, Elisabet Ney and Edmund Montgomery, along with their devoted Austrian housekeeper Crescentia "Cencie" Simath, settled in Thomasville, Georgia. It was here that the couple's first son, Arthur, was born; Elisabet was thirty-eight years old.
After their closest friends in Thomasville - the Stralendorffs - moved back to Germany in 1872, Elisabet and Edmund began their search for a new home. During their travels, their second son, Lorne, was born, no doubt solidfying their decision to settle somewhere more permanent and idyllic.
Though they searched throughout the North and Midwest United States for a suitable home, they eventually decided to join the wave of settlers headed to a land described as "the best country in the world" by W. J. Blewett.
"Gone to Texas": Liendo Plantation
Upon arriving in Texas inn 1873, Elisabet purchased Liendo Plantation in Hempstead for her family. The grand home needed repairs, but the land surrounding it was beautiful and fertile. Elisabet fell in love with Liendo immediately, declaring, "Here I shall live, and here I shall die!"
The couple would live at Liendo for twenty years. During this time, Elisabet prioritized farm work over sculpting, and Edmund primarily focused on his scientific and philisophical work.
The years the couple spent at Liendo were challenging, filled with good times but also severe burdens. Early on, their oldest son, Arthur, then three years old, died of diphtheria. Elisabet's relationship with her younger son, Lorne, deteriorated over these twenty years as he rebelled against his mothers over-protective tendencies. Ney and Lorne never completely reconciled.
By 1891, Liendo had become for Elisabet, completely isolated from the world of the arts, intellectual stimulation or creative expression, a "lovely cursed retreat." For Edmund, on the other hand, immersed in his writings which were bringing him increasing professional attention and honor, Liendo was the answer to his expressed desire "to live in the open, quietly, peacefully, with a few congenial and loving companions." It seemed inevitable that their lives would diverge again as it had in their early life: Elisabet to Austin to pursue her idealistic dreams in the world of "great persons;” Edmund continuing his research and writing on the secluded plantation under the care of the devoted Cenci.
Formosa and Austin, Texas
As with many things in Elisabet Ney's life, forging a rich, creative and humanitarian life for the remaining fifteen years of her life in Austin, was not accomplished without a struggle. There was, first, a financial struggle. At one point, Ney entered a notice in the paper:
To my creditors: - Please don't bother to send me any bills. I have no money. – Elisabet Ney, Sculptor.
It was not until the Texas Legislature appropriated $32,000 for Ney to execute her portraits of Stephen F. Austin, Sam Houston and Albert Sidney Johnston memorials in marble that her financial situation stabilized.
Ney’s first task on arriving in Austin in 1892 was to purchase four and a half acres of rolling prairie, wildflowers and post oaks along Waller Creek on the northeast edge of the developing suburb of Hyde Park just north of Austin. On this land, the Ney left in its natural state, she built a small classically-styled studio reminiscent of a Greek temple embodying her romantic ideals and her neo-classical training. She named her studio Formosa (Portuguese for “beautiful”) after the studio her husband had created for her on the occasion of their marriage on the tropical island of Madeira in 1863. Built of native limestone, the studio gave the appearance of a small castle surrounded by native prairie, wildflowers and post oaks with a running creek and nearby lake. The creation of Formosa bears the imprint of Ney’s conscious effort to create personal surroundings that combined a deep personal love of nature and a long held conviction of the power of art to enrich life and uplift the soul.
Although Elisabet Ney personally had the reserve and formality of a European lady, according to Bride Neill Taylor, her most intimate friends found her “totally human, impulsive, recklessly frank and independent . . . full of open delight.” Many friends were drawn to the delightful and interesting “Miss Ney” and Ney’s Formosa soon became the site of creative impulses of a different, but no less important nature: those that arise out of the meetings of minds and shared aspirations.
It is not surprising, and quite interesting, to find Elisabet Ney’s Formosa described as a “salon” in 1892 Austin where “saloon” was one of Austin’s most widely known attributes. And yet, Taylor’s account of the meetings at Formosa very aptly describes the salons of Elisabet Ney’s earlier life in Berlin and Munich. On might say, Elisabet Ney, among her many contributions, introduced the first European “salon” to Austin in 1892!
According to Taylor, as the years passed, the studio became noted as "the chief social center of culture in the city" and a welcome there an honor eagerly coveted. Most were friends who had shared in the struggle "to bring a sense of beauty into the crude bareness of Texas life."
Here, at Formosa, from 1892 until her death in 1907, Ney’s life seemed to come full circle. Ney was finally able to practice her art and live according to her deeply held ideals which had been honed and tested in a remarkably rich, varied and, at times, intense life.
Formosa remains today a tribute, both to Elisabet Ney's art, and to her art of living. At her death, the Austin Daily Statesman wrote, after summarizing her many accomplishments:
“She had so many friends. It was the woman, quite as much as the artist, that enamored herself to
hundreds of warm friends and admirers.”
Surely, a eulogy Elisabet Ney would have welcomed.
Scroll through the gallery of Texas sculptures below, and click on the image if you want to learn more information about the object or want to see more photographs.