Franzisca Bernadina Wilhelmina Elisabeth Ney (January 26, 1833–June 29, 1907) was a celebrated German-born sculptor who spent the first half of her life and career in Europe, producing sculpted works of famous leaders such as Otto von Bismarck, Giuseppe Garibaldiand King George V of Hannover. At age 39, she emigrated to Texas with her husband Edmund D.Montgomery. Ney was one of the most colorful and influential women in early Texas history. She and her husband Dr. Edmund Montgomery played an active role in the establishment of Texas state universities and the Texas Fine Arts Association, and they continue to this day to be an inspiration to people who love art and ideas. In 1892, Elisabet Ney built a small neoclassical studio in the remote natural setting of Hyde Park, Austin, Texas. In this studio, Ney sculpted the “great men” of frontier Texas, among them life-size figures of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston that stand today in the national and state capitols. By the turn of the century, Elisabet Ney’s Hyde Park studio had become a gathering place for influential Texans drawn to the colorful character of “Miss Ney” and to the stimulating discussions of politics, art and philosophy that took place there. Inspired by Ney’s “revolutionary” idea that art and beauty have been–and can be–powerful forces in the shaping of a nation as well as in individuals, these early Texans went on to found the University of Texas Art Department, the Texas Commission on the Arts, the Texas Fine Arts Association and museums and art schools throughout the state.
The Latin word Sursum meaning to “uplift your heart” takes on special significance when considered in the context of artist Elisabet Ney and her scientist-philosopher husband Edmund Montgomery – a couple who shared a deeply held belief in the perfectibility of man, inspired by beauty and instructed by science. This shared ideal is beautifully rendered in Ney’s sculpture entitled “Sursum” which shows two children supporting each other as they strive upward, with upturned faces, one holding high the torch of inspiration and the other the key to knowledge. Translated within the context of this shared belief and their lives dedicated to achieving this ideal, particularly with regard to children, Sursum becomes an urgent call to lift one’s heart upwards and to live a life inspired and nurtured by beauty and instructed by reason and the sciences.
Following Elisabet Ney’s death in 1907, her friends preserved the studio and its contents as the Elisabet Ney Museum, dedicated to honoring the memory of Elisabet Ney and to promoting her ideals and visions for the people of Texas. Mansbendel carved a bas relief of the New studio that resides at the Austin History Center, and the studio has a gavel that Mansbendel carved in walnut on display.