Parnelia “Nell” Spethman Augustine

1884 Grand Island, Nebraska – 1960 Grand Island, Nebraska

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Receiving special attention for her drawing at the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in Omaha, Nebraska, Parnelia, or Nell as she was called, was then a 14-year old girl from Grand Island, Nebraska, the daughter of Dietrick and Margaret Spethman. Her entry received public praise beyond Nebraska, and assumptions were that, with her special talent, she would remain dedicated to drawing and painting. But she didn’t! Instead she directed her energy to marriage and children. Her husband was a local man, Ernest Webster Augustine, and they raised three children in Grand Island, and had privileged lives because of his success in the printing business with his father, I.M. Augustine. Their oldest child was a daughter, Mercedes, who became the artist people had expected her mother would be. After Mercedes became established as a painter, she reached out to her mother and pulled her back into the world of art. It happened because of a family tragedy.

This ‘full-circle’ for Nell occured because of the death of her youngest child, Ernest Keith Augustine, who died suddenly in 1940 when he was in the ninth grade. He had been normal during the day, then had a severe headache, and by midnight was dead. Not only was the boy much loved at home, but he had been popular with his peers; just before his death, he had been recognized in his school newspaper as having been voted the most handsome and best-mannered boy at Barr Junior High School in Grand Island. According to Mercedes, her mother became so distraught that she, Mercedes, who was then teaching art at Barr, bought her mother a set of oil paints one day, left them in obvious view, and went off to her teaching job. Then doing what her daughter hoped would happen, “Nell set up a handmade ceramic pitcher, creamer and sugar bowl, and had it painted before Mercedes returned home.” Shortly after the boy’s death, this still life was shown at the Grand Island Art and Sketch Club Exhibit at the Yancey Hotel Rose Room November 8, 9, and 10, 1940. From that time, Nell Augustine continued to paint and exhibit with the Club until 1955, when she had a heart attack. Continued health decline led to her death in 1960, a year before her husband died.

Once she returned to creating art, Nell became a prolific painter. In April 1943, she tied for first place recognition as most popular painting for her large oil, American Beauty Roses, in the juried Lincoln Artists’ Guild All-Nebraska Show at Miller and Paine Department Store’s auditorium in Lincoln. One of her landscape paintings was exhibited in the 1943 Lincoln Artists’ Guild show, and other of her entries were in the Guild exhibits of 1944 and 1955, and the All-Nebraska Show at Morrill Hall in 1954. Joslyn Art Museum exhibited her still life painting, Moroccan Souvenirs, and for many years, her daughter Mercedes had this painting over her fireplace.

The Museum of Nebraska Art has one work by Parnelia Augustine.

Sources:, Apr. 2014
Museum of Nebraska Art files: Handwritten note by Mercedes Augustine>/p>

Researched, written, and copyrighted by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier

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

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Parnelia Augustine, Moroccan Souvenirs, oil on canvas, n.d.