The Austin History Center's mission is to procure, preserve, present and provide the historical records that make up Austin's unique story.
You stand in the midst of the Elisabet Ney Museum. You may think this is some flat space dedicated to a woman long gone, but where you stand is actually the birthplace of Austin’s art scene. The museum is named for the renowned sculptor, Elisabet Ney, and while her works are on display worldwide, the largest collection of her works is right here. The building is also home to exhibits by contemporary artists.
Elisabet was a sculptor and a legendary one. Born in Germany, trained in Munich and Berlin, she was commissioned to sculpt Queen Victoria.
However, as soon as Elisabet set her mind to sculpting, people sought to stand in her way. In order to receive her parents' permission to attend the Munich Academy of Art, Elisabet went on a hunger strike for seven days. She won in the end, and in 1852 became Munich Academy's first female student in sculpture.
By 1857, she had opened her own studio, where she met and sculpted King George V of Germany, fairytale author Jacob Grimm of the Brothers Grimm, Italian military leader Giuseppe Garibaldi, and German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.
When she was driven out of Germany by the Franco-Prussian war, Elisabet traveled to the US, eventually reaching Austin, where she opened a studio. The Elisabet Ney Museum is that studio. Here Elisabet’s sculptures were carved out of plaster and wax and bronze and marble and caressed into the fragile bodies of men and women.
Passers-by could see something they, and indeed every Texan, already understood: Enough hard work and sweat can eek beauty out of anything -- even stone.
Elisabet's art can be found all over Texas: the marble statues of Stephen Austin and Sam Houston in the Texas State Capitol, her bust of David Iglehart at the Austin Symphony Society, and her memorial design for Albert Johnston at Texas State Cemetery. Outside of Texas,her works are featured in places like the Smithsonian, Berlin, Hanover, England, and Italy.
The Austin art community was set in motion in this little workshop. It began in earnest with the launch of the art department at the University of Texas-Austin in 1938 and survived the drafts and draft-dodging of World War II. It thrived as the US hurtled into the tumult of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. And even today it grows outward and upward still, its murmurs found as far as New York and London and Mumbai as the art department prepares to celebrate its 80th anniversary in 2018.
Here lie the beginnings of art in Austin. Give yourself time to take it in.
Cover photo credit @tenwheelsdown via Instagram.