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Sursum


ISSUE:  Autumn 1928

Romance in the palace of a Bavarian king — a daring woman. The eternal theme of love and vaulting ambition — indiscretion, scandal—and the plot has its tragic denouement in a little stone studio in Austin, Texas. This at least is the substance of the story that curious settlers have woven about the life of Elizabet Ney.

The studio in Austin still stands. It is hidden in a rambling part; of this small college town, its rough stone back rising up squarely from the edge of a diminutive, brackish pond. In a tree in front, a nest of half-grown, quarrelsome chicadees disturb the almost sepulchral Sunday stillness. The yard is overgrown with blue bonnets and delicately shaded primroses. Here and there under the low-hanging hackberry trees are century plants bristling like gigantic pineapple tops. There is no walk. Once inside the barbed-wire post fence, you must trace your way to the house along a sketchy path worn by pilgrim feet through the weeds.

The studio is fashioned of slabs of yellow field-stone that were found in the neighborhood. It rises two stories high with a small porch recessed over the side entrance by the stairs. On the corner stone is cut this one mystical word, “Sursum”: the key to Elisabet Ney’s strange life. Niches have been left on either side of the door for statues. Guarding the entrance are carved angel faces, their heads drooping from the heavy sunlight that falls with such caressing warmth in Austin.

“What was this unusual genius and eccentric character doing in the backwoods of Texas?” This is the question all visitors ask involuntarily as they cross the threshold and take one breathless glance at the studio inside. “What whim of Fate could have doomed Elisabet Ney to waste her talents in a frontier town of less than ten thousand inhabitants where at most she could hope to be misunderstood and ignored?” The entire story will probably never be known, but part of it can be read from the mute statues inside.

In one corner of the room you enter first is a study of Stephen F. Austin, head of the American colony, in Texas. On the other side are several death masks and the small, curled body of a young dead baby. There are charts of the human anatomy hanging on the wall besides several pencil sketches by Miss Ney of the body in different poses. A marble bust of Governor Sayers, unearthly and un-masculine in its exquisite beauty, stands out above everything else in the room. After you have stared at it fascinated for a while, perhaps your interest may drift to the plaques of arms, heads, and hands adorning the wall. Were it not for the deathly pallor of these fragments, you might fear that you were in the den of a modern, barbaric Bluebeard. In one arm in particular the blood-vessels protrude with such alarming reality that it seems to palpitate with life. Bismarck has a prominent place in the room. He is stern, brooding, and calculating. Strange that everything inside the studio should be muffled in this dull, cold light when beyond these high, wide windows and this foot of stone wall, the sun falls so lavishly on the little green pond and the darting, burnished dragonflies that glint so brilliantly.

The door to the inner studio opens into the artist’s past if not her heart. Before the window is a Diana-like figure of a woman, her arms posed gracefully about her head. There is a great deal of Elisabet Ney’s life in the Old World linked with this statue. It breathes of Munich, the Art Academy, and the great master Rauch; for back in the days when Elisabet’s future was still a dream, she first won recognition in an art competition for the skillful manner in which she completed this torso of a woman that had been given the class for study. Above the fire-place is a head of Schopenhauer; his fine lips and intelligent forehead are eloquent of the powerful, sure stroke with which they were created.

Nearby, in front of a massive, recumbent, herculean figure and in startling contrast to it, is the statue of King Ludwig II of Bavaria chiseled for the palace gardens in the days when gossip linked the sculptress’ name with the king’s. The young ruler is dressed in the panoply of a Knight of St. Hubert. He is frail and delicate, even in marble; his beautiful weak lips and curling hair heighten his effeminate appearance. Next to him, appropriately, stands Lady Macbeth as she appears in the sleep-walking scene. Small wonder that this is Elisabet Ney’s masterpiece, for it is her own soul poured into stone. The anguish in the Lady’s face is the suffering in Elisabet’s heart. Perhaps, it is more than chance that Lady Macbeth ‘is placed so that her shoulder is turned against the timid king while the eloquent way in which she wrings her hands bespeaks the misery he has caused her.

In this room, on a raised platform, Elisabet Ney chose to sleep in a hammock rather than go upstairs away from her precious work. It is not difficult to reconstruct her thoughts as she lay awake in the moonlight with these beloved ghosts of the past around her. Did she dream of her strict Catholic home in Westphalia or of the gay life she led later in Munich ? Certainly, her whole soul was wrapped up in these two rooms. Even her little parlor faced them, so she could watch and study her adored compositions as she rested. Here, too, she served tea to curious visitors who came for a glimpse of this shocking artist who dared to wear knickers in the privacy of her own home.

Offhand, you can obtain a rather unsatisfactory account of Elisabet Ney’s life from any, of the curators of the studio or from the rather meager biography written about her. She was born in 1834 in Minister, the capital of Westphalia, of strict Catholic parents. She prevailed upon her father and mother to let her go to Munich to study sculpture where she soon became the favorite pupil of the great Rauch. She made busts of Schopenhauer and Bismarck and gained the attention of Ludwig II by her beauty and brilliance. He commissioned her to design the royal gardens for him and make his statue. Meanwhile, she married Dr. Edmund Montgomery, a brilliant scientist and student. The marriage was an unhappy one, and she insisted upon going her own way and keeping her maiden name. After quarreling with some petty officials in Munich over the design of the gardens, she became exasperated and with her husband sailed for the New World, patently to join a Utopia. Malaria drove them from Georgia, and they settled at Liendo, a plantation in Hempstead, Texas. Elisabet Ney’s democratic attitude towards her negro slaves incensed the people around her and compelled them to move to Austin where she began work on designs for the state capitol. At Liendo she had cremated the body of her older son, Arthur (named after Schopenhauer), who died while still quite small. For many years afterwards she carried a small chest around with her wherever she went. When someone opened it one day out of curiosity, he found inside only a figure of her dead baby. When her younger son, Lome, grew up, he became estranged from his mother, a circumstance which caused her no little pain.

At Austin they lived in comparative obscurity until two statues, of Stephen F. Austin and General Houston, Elisabet had designed for the state capitol, won her recognition at the Chicago Exposition in 1893. Coincidentally, with the death of Ludwig two years later, Elisabet Ney sailed for Munich and returned with her valued works that she had left in Europe before. She died in full possession of her faculties.

After you have lived in Austin for some time and frequented the studio, you hear other versions of her life. To many it is strange that a quarrel with petty officials in Munich could drive Elisabet Ney to a barren country where a career like hers must obviously die of starvation away from the cultural centers and the eager critics of the art world. There is a great deal, too, that they, can not understand about her strange union with Dr. Montgomery; and they even doubt her marriage, or insist that, if such it was, it must have been a marriage of convenience, perhaps at the king’s suggestion. It was a violent lovers’ quarrel with Lud-wig II, according to them, that really compelled her to quit the country and put an ocean between them. This is their version of why Elisabet waited until the death of Ludwig to return to Munich and gather up her treasures that she had left behind her in her precipitate flight. They argue that the malaria swamps of Georgia are not so far reaching that one must come to Texas to escape them. It was the pressure of outraged public opinion, they contend, that goaded her across the country and finally compelled her to desert even her beloved Liendo. Dr. Montgomery does not seem to have stayed with her throughout her last years at Austin although he returned to be at her bedside when she died June 29, 1907. It is said that she was out of her mind when the end came.

Unfortunately, perhaps, we shall never really know where truth ends and fiction begins in the intriguing versions of her life. To many, the story of her romance with King Ludwig seems founded in fact and explains her exile in obscurity in the sparsely settled, cattle lands of Texas. Yet there are other stories circulated about her which we have no reason to believe. One of her best statues is “The Head of a Young Violinist.” The bust is that of a handsome youth. His face is turned slightly to one side, and his expression indicates that his whole soul is filled with an inner, spiritual exaltation. Visitors to the studio remarked that Miss Ney had an unusual fondness for this youth. She was often known to stroke his hair gently and kiss his lips with a fondness that was more Pygmalian than disinterested. They concluded at once that the man who posed for the work was a former lover of hers in Europe. The less romantic but true story is that Miss Ney had Lome in mind when she modeled the bust and that it was nothing more than maternal love intensified by his cruel neglect of her that prompted this strange show of affection.

The Texas Fine Arts Association and a few ambitious club women are maintaining her studio with much effort and cost to themselves until the time when the world shall realize that buried in this Texas town are works of art fine enough for the Metropolitan Museum or the Louvre. It is far more fitting, according to their notions of propriety, that any scandal about Elisabet Ney be discredited. They forget that the artist’s moral code does not necessarily affect the artistic value of her work. We give Wordsworth to our children to read despite his illicit love affair, and we praise Oscar Wilde and forget his sexual immorality. One’s personal life is after all incidental to fame. Many virtuous and immoral girls have attempted what Elisabet Ney did and failed. Future generations, in judging her, will not care if she was a nun or the king’s paramour except in so far as these circumstances modified her contacts and moulded her environments. Her work, and that is the important point, is chastely pure with the coldness of her medium and the restraint of a finished artist.

Of the few statues that did not find their way to this country, “Sursum” is the most interesting; for its theme of pushing onward to success accurately reveals Miss Ney’s philosophy of life. The study consists of a boy and girl arm in arm. Both are looking upward expectantly, but the boy is leaning on the girl and she seems to be pointing the way. This work so interested the great scholar and chemist Liebig, that when the people of Munich wanted to make him a present, he said, “I want only Miss Ney’s statue and nothing more.” The theme of “Sursum” is the pattern of Elisabet’s life. Her constant, goading ambition and her firm belief that woman was the stronger sex not to be dominated by man, more than all else, moulded her destiny and doomed her to merciless oblivion in an unsympathetic wilderness. Sursum! It is written in the faces of all her statues; it animates the passive marble she worked until the studio seems alive with beating, throbbing stone. Sursum! It is cut into the cornerstone of her studio as it was seared into her brain. Exile, persecution, and oblivion could not master her. It is only a matter of time until she will take her place with the immortals and sursum and Elisabet Ney shall be one!

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