Nelly Griggs Alexander

1875, Beatrice, Nebraska – 1943, San Bernadino, California

(Nelly Griggs)

Daughter and wife of two highly prominent Nebraska men, Nelly Alexander was a youngster in a period of drought, grasshoppers, and financial panic in her native state, but apparently did not personally suffer deprivation. She became an accomplished painter, batik textile artist, musician, and writer. Nelly trained at the Kansas City Art Institute, and in 1927 had work entered in the Sixth Annual Art Exhibition of Midwestern Artists. Until age 33, she was single and lived mostly in Lincoln, Nebraska where she was socially prominent because her father, Nathan Kirk Griggs (1844-1910), had been President of the Nebraska Senate in 1875; American consul to Chemnitz, Germany; and a lawyer with an early practice in Beatrice. For Nelly, a chance meeting at a Lincoln restaurant with one of the waiters named Hartley Burr Alexander (1873-1939) led to marriage in 1908 and brought into her life another ‘high profile’ man of public note. Described as a “scholar, lexicographer, essayist, poet teacher, philosopher and humanitarian” (Nebraska State Capitol), Hartley was also an expert on Indian mythology and culture and author of inscriptions on the Nebraska State Capitol Building. In the ceremony when he was inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame, he was described as “Nebraska’s Renaissance Man.” A year after marriage, Nelly gave birth to a son, Hubert Griggs Alexander, who many years later earned respect in academic circles as an archaeologist in New Mexico.

Nelly also had a reputation as a singer and was sophisticated about music. This interest was linked to her father who had made good use of leisure time in Germany by amassing an enormous library related to music. Although his career as a lawyer for the Burlington Railroad was demanding, he also found time to compose music. After her marriage and children, creative projects continued for Nelly including collaboration with Hartley in composing music for Ivy Song, published in 1922. In 1920, her widowed mother, Epsie Griggs, then age 75, lived with the family in Lincoln at 1835 Ryons Street. This circumstance apparently gave Nelly freedom and independence for travel and pursuing her painting. In 1925, when she was 49, she crossed the ocean by herself on a ship from New York City to England. Two years later, in 1927, she exhibited at the Sixth Annual Art Exhibition of Midwestern Artists at the Kansas City Art Institute.

Meanwhile Hartley, serving as Chair of the Philosophy Department, University of Nebraska, and known as a “free thinker,” had become roiled by his inability to persuade University officials to adopt his proposals related to teacher education programs. So in 1928, he resigned and accepted a job as professor at Scripps Institute, a newly established women’s college in Torrey Pines, California, where he was encouraged to try out his innovative theories about teaching and learning. Nelly, age 53 and Hartley, age 55, left Lincoln and located in Claremont, living out their lives in California, including San Jose and San Bernardino. If Nelly was active artistically in California, it seems to have received no public attention, a circumstance indicated by her omission in the multi-volume synopsis, Artists in California, 1786 to 1940, by Edan Milton Hughes. However, a photograph of her published on shows her as a middle-age woman set up in a landscape with an easel, beautiful surroundings, and an expression on her face that says ‘what could be better than this?’

Nelly Alexander is not represented in the Museum of Nebraska Art collection.

Sources:, Mar. 2014, Mar. 2014
Bucklin, Clarissa, Nebraska Art and Artists, p. 27, Print
Family Tree Legends, Web, Apr. 2015
“Hartley Burr Alexander,” Lincoln City Libraries Archives, Web, Apr. 2015
“Hartley Burr Alexander,” Nebraska State Capitol, Web, Apr. 2015
“Hartley Burr Alexander,” Wikipedia, Web, Apr. 2015
Hughes, Edan Milton, Artists in California, 1786-1940, Volume I, Print
Knoll, Robert E., Prairie University, pp. 74-75, Print
Omaha Society of Fine Arts Second Annual Nebraska Artists Exhibition October 6 to
October 29, 1922,
Catalogue, Print
“Nathan Griggs: The Pioneer Days,” The History of Music of Old Nebraska, Web, Apr. 2015

Researched, xwritten, and copyrighted by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier

Museum of Nebraska Art Project:
Their Place, Their Time: Women Artists in Nebraska, 1825-1945