This month’s focus piece is the marble bust of a young woman with wavy, swept-up hair—Carrie Pease Graham.
You may recognize the name. The women of the Pease family played a significant role in Elisabet Ney’s life and in the history of Austin.
Carrie’s mother, the Connecticut-born Lucadia Pease, was well-known in Austin society. Her husband, Elisha M. Pease, served two terms as Governor. As Texas’s First Lady, Lucadia chose the site of the then-new Governor’s Mansion, and assisted with the selection of its architectural style. In 1875, she and her husband donated 23 acres of their land, located along Shoal Creek, for the citizens of Austin to use as a public park. After the death of her husband, she managed the family’s estate, Woodlawn, situated in what was then the sparsely-populated hills west of the capitol.
Ney met Lucadia in 1893 at a university function, after which she became a frequent visitor at Woodlawn. Lucadia was an early and significant supporter of Ney, loaning her $400 to finish the statue of Stephen F. Austin.
Lucadia’s daughter Julia was also an important figure. She was active in local literary, historical, cultural, and philanthropic organizations, including the Texas State Historical Association and the University Ladies Club, and also raised funds for a hospital, to improve conditions at the Austin jail, and to preserve Austin trees. When the Pease estate was subdivided in the 1920s, Julia may have suggested the Connecticut place names and family names for many of the new streets.
Ney never met Carrie, who died giving birth to her fifth child in 1882, at the age of 31. But she formed a close attachment to Carrie’s children, Marshall, Margaret, and Niles Graham, who lived at Woodlawn after the death of their mother. Niles would later become an important business owner, and developed the neighborhoods of Enfield, Westenfield, Westfield, and a portion of Tarrytown, out of the family property.
Carrie’s bust was commissioned by her mother and sisters. It was likely meant as a remembrance for her three surviving children, and possibly as a way to support their friend Elisabet Ney’s career.
Ney modeled the original plaster bust in 1895, relying on family photographs to capture her subject’s physiognomy. The marble bust was completed in Berlin around 1897. Interestingly, the marble bust, but not the plaster, is inscribed JULIA PEASE. According to Ney’s letters, a misunderstanding between Ney and her German marble cutter, Friedrich Ochs, caused the error.
The plaster bust remained in Ney’s studio after her death. The marble was donated to the museum in the 1940s by Carrie’s daughter, Margaret Graham Crusemann.
Elisabet Ney’s plaster bust of William Lambdin Prather, modeled 1905
People often ask about Elisabet Ney’s working process. How did she make her portraits so lifelike?
In many cases, she modeled a bust out of clay while in the sitter’s presence. The clay is easily malleable, so that she could get the details of the physiognomy correct. Then, plaster molds were made from the clay figure.
Other portraits, such as this bust of William Prather, started with a death mask. Prather was the third president of the University of Texas, a post to which he was appointed in 1900. Upon his death in 1905 at age 57, his family approached Ney and asked her to have a death mask made, in order that a marble bust might be made later. Ney herself declined to make the mask. Three years earlier she had made a death mask of her good friend Jacob Bickler, and then later made the marble bust—this, she said, had touched her too deeply and she didn’t want to repeat this experience.
So, she suggested that her friend, former “dog robber” (errand boy), and sometime assistant Max Bickler (Jacob’s son), make the death mask, together with her Italian studio assistant Cosimo Docchi. Miss Ney wrote this note to Max (in her imperfect English):
My dear Maxy:
I send my 2 books for you to look in when an understanding is needed.
You see to:
Getting some old sheets and pieces of sheets to cover floor and bed.
Plenty water in a bucket
Nobody to enter.
Warm water is best.
Sure: warm water, to wash afterward the grease off.
I know you will be the greatest blessing there.
Senior Docchi will also take a hand.
As Bickler remembered, neither he nor Docchi spoke the other’s language, but they succeeded at their task. “The hardest part was removing the hardened plaster of Paris cast from Prather’s moustache and beard. First, we greased his face with sweet oil, and then applied the plaster of Paris and let it dry. When dry, we removed the model from the face in three pieces and carried it out to Miss Ney’s studio in a box of sand on the streetcar. She left it in the sand until thoroughly dry and from this model she made the marble bust of Prather.” The marble bust was donated to UT; the plaster bust and the death mask can be found in the collection of the Elisabet Ney Museum.
Ney’s portrait looks very much like Prather. What do you think?
September 2016, by Margaret Stenz
Elisabet Ney was a portraitist who created likenesses of many famous individuals, including members of royalty, statesmen and politicians, scientists, philosophers, and writers. Early in life she knew that she wanted to be a sculptor so that she could travel the world and meet important people.
Toward the end of her career, however, she made many portraits for people who were important to her, with whom she had personal relationships—her friends and neighbors. A small number of these memorialized deceased family members. This one depicts Steiner Burleson, who died at the age of 6 from complications of spinal meningitis. It’s not surprising that Ney was touched by the death of her friend’s son. Arthur, Ney’s own first-born son, had died from diphtheria at the age of two.
The marble plaque depicts a young boy encircled by a concave scalloped form, suggesting either a sea-shell or a large leaf, with foliage at the bottom. The boy’s facial features and his soft feathered hair are delicately carved and amazingly life-like. At bottom right, the plaque is engraved with the boy’s first name, “Steiner.”
Bas-relief medallions such as this one were extremely popular toward the end of the 19th century. These smaller, more intimate pieces were intended to be displayed in private settings, such as a family home, contrasting with larger, three-dimensional portrait busts of famous people, designed for more public settings, such as libraries or public buildings.
Steiner was the second child of her friends Adele (née Steiner) and Albert Burleson. Albert was an Austin lawyer and district attorney who was serving his first term in the US House of Representatives when Steiner became ill. Adele later became an accomplished author, poet, playwright, and a socialite. The sculpture was donated to the museum in 1962 by Laura Burleson Negley, Steiner’s older sister, who herself served in the Texas House of Representatives in the 1930s, and inherited the plaque after her mother’s death in 1948.
August 2016, by Margaret Stenz
The Elisabet Ney Museum has many pieces of sculpture created by Elisabet Ney, documenting her successful career and artistic practice. What you many not know is that we also have many of the furnishings that Ney herself purchased or made for use in her studio. Much of the furniture is rough-hewn and practical, demonstrating both her frugality and her no-nonsense approach to her life. Written accounts and extant photos show how she combined her simple wooden tables and chairs with white tablecloths and her elegant silver table setting to host guests for tea and garden parties.
One of my favorite pieces on the second floor is a book shelf known as a “Larkin desk.” This piece is not unique to the Elisabet Ney Museum, and in fact it was a common item in many American middle class homes around 1900. The desk was popularized by John Larkin, the owner of the Buffalo-based laundry soap manufacturing firm. Larkin and his business partner, Elbert Hubbard (who later established the American branch of the Arts and Crafts movement in Aurora, New York), came up with a novel way to encourage housewives to buy their soap: they gave out premiums with every purchase. At first it was small cards with homey scenes—people could trade with their friends and collect the entire set. Later they gave out crockery to repeat buyers who collected enough points. However, the most popular item from their premium catalog was the “Larkin desk”—a solid oak drop-front combination bookcase desk that came in several variations—mirrored top, drop-front at the side, two glass front cases with a desk in the middle, etc. In some cases the desks were so easy to assemble that they were shipped flat and assembled at the buyer’s house. Sound familiar?
The piece in the Elisabet Ney Museum is not in perfect condition—the drop-front is in need of repair and has been removed for the time being. However, purchased for a working studio, this desk, as well as the rest of Ney’s furniture, was extremely functional and well-used, not merely decorative.
July 2016, by Margaret Stenz
As a sculptor in nineteenth-century Europe and America, Elisabet Ney was a portraitist. Her finely carved marble busts and freestanding life-size figures were commissioned by many famous people, including scientists, writers, musicians, politicians, philosophers, and royalty.
Luckily for us, Ney also made portrait busts of herself and her husband, Edmund Montgomery. Ney modeled her self-portrait in 1863, a few years after she finished art school in Berlin. She made Edmund’s portrait in 1868, shortly after their marriage. Montgomery’s bust was carved in marble right away, but Ney’s self-portrait was not completed in marble until 1903, when she was 70 years old, at her own expense and initiative.
These marble busts of Ney and her husband are perhaps the finest in the entire museum collection, and are a great example of her abilities as a sculptor. Take a look at the variety of surface finishes and textures--Montgomery’s thick, tightly curled hair and beard; Ney’s short, natural curls; the folds of her simple gown; the couple’s finely delineated facial features; the milky smooth marble surface. These are all examples of Ney’s virtuoso skill in marble.
Portrait bust of Elisabet Ney
Portrait bust of Elisabet Ney's husband, Edmund Montgomery
Aside from the high degree of finish, however, we get the strong feeling that these busts represent the couple as they really were. Neo-classical sculpture avoided contemporary attire that tied sitters to a particular date and time. Yet the hair is fairly specific. Montgomery’s mutton chops were quite trendy in the late 1860s. And Ney’s shortly cropped hair defies all contemporary styles, demonstrating her individuality and practicality--fashionable women of the day pulled their long hair back in combs or braids, wrapped it in a bun, or tucked it in a hair net, in sometimes very elaborate arrangements.
That these sculptures accurately resemble the subjects can be verified by the many photos we have of Ney and Montgomery. But Ney’s fine carving techniques bring the subjects to life—even now, 150 years later.