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Alma Woodsey Thomas (September 22, 1891 – February 24, 1978) was an African-American Expressionist painter and art educator.[1] She lived and worked primarily in Washington, D.C. and the Washington Post described her as a force in the Washington Color School.[2] The Wall Street Journal describes her as a previously "underappreciated artist" who is more recently recognized for her "exuberant" works, noteworthy for their pattern, rhythm and color.[3]

Alma Thomas
Alma Thomas.jpg
Alma Thomas in her studio, ca. 1968
Born Alma Woodsey Thomas
(1891-09-22)September 22, 1891
Columbus, Georgia, U.S.
Died February 24, 1978(1978-02-24) (aged 86)
Washington, D.C.
Education Howard University
Columbia University
Known for Painting
Notable work Sky Light; Iris, Tulips, Jonquils and Crocuses; Watusi (Hard Edge); Wind and Crepe Myrtle Concerto; Air View of a Spring Nursery; Milky Way; Flowers at Jefferson Memorial; Untitled (Music Series); Red Rose Sonata; Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers; The Eclipse
Movement Expressionism


Personal life and educationEdit

Alma Thomas was born the eldest of four children to John Harris Thomas, a businessman,[4] and Amelia Cantey Thomas, a dress designer,[4] in Columbus, Georgia, 1891. In 1907 the family moved to the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C., relocating due to racial violence in Georgia and the public school system of Washington.[5] As a child, she displayed artistic interest, making puppets and sculptures at home.[4] Thomas attended Armstrong Technical High School, where she took her first art classes. After graduating from high school in 1911, she studied kindergarten education at Miner Normal School until 1913. She served as a substitute teacher in Washington until 1914 when she obtained a permanent teaching position on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Two years later, in 1916, she started teaching kindergarten at the Thomas Garrett Settlement House in Wilmington, Delaware, staying there until 1923.[6]

Alma Thomas House in Washington, D.C. Where Alma lived until her death.

Thomas entered Howard University in 1921, as a home economics student, only to switch to fine art after studying under art department founder James V. Herring. She earned her BS in Fine Arts in 1924[6] from Howard University; becoming the first graduate from the university Fine Arts program.[2] That year, Thomas began teaching at Shaw Junior High School, where she taught until her retirement in 1960. She taught alongside Malkia Roberts.[7] While at Shaw Junior High, she started a community arts program that encouraged student appreciation of fine art. The program supported marionette performances and the distribution of student designed holiday cards which were given to soldiers at the Tuskegee Veterans Administration Medical Center. In 1934, she earned her Masters in Art Education from Columbia University and studied painting at American University under Jacob Kainen from 1950 to 1960. In 1958, she visited art centers in Western Europe on behalf of the Tler School of Art. She retired in 1960 from teaching and dedicated herself to painting. In 1963, she walked in the March on Washington with her friend Lillian Evans.[8]

Alma Thomas died on February 28, 1978 still living in the same house that her family moved into upon their arrival in Washington in 1906.[5][6]

Artistic careerEdit

"Creative art is for all time and is therefore independent of time. It is of all ages, of every land, and if by this we mean the creative spirit in man which produces a picture or a statue is common to the whole civilized world, independent of age, race and nationality; the statement may stand unchallenged."
-Alma Thomas, 1970[9]

Alma Thomas' early work was representational in manner.[9] Upon further education at Howard and training under James V. Herring and Lois Mailou Jones her work became more abstract.[10] Thomas would not be recognized as a professional artist until her retirement from teaching in 1960, when she enrolled in classes at American University. There she learned about the Color Field movement and theory from Ben L. Summerford and Jacob Kainen. She then became interested in the use of color and composition. Within twelve years after her first class at American, she began creating Color Field paintings, inspired by the work of the New York School and Abstract Expressionism.[9] She worked out of the kitchen in her house, creating works like Watusi (Hard Edge) (1963), a manipulation of the Matisse cutout The Snail,[11] in which Thomas shifted shapes around and changed the colors that Matisse used, and named it after a Chubby Checker song.[5]

Her first retrospective exhibit was in 1966 at the Gallery of Art at Howard University, curated by art historian James A. Porter. For this exhibition, she created Earth Paintings, a series of nature inspired abstract works, including Wind and Crepe Myrtle Concerto (1973) which art historian Sharon Patton considers "one of the most Minimalist Color-Field paintings ever produced by an African-American artist."[9] These paintings have been compared to Byzantine mosaics and the pointillist paintings of Georges-Pierre Seurat.[10] A friend of Delilah Pierce, Thomas and Pierce would drive into the countryside where Thomas would seek inspiration, pulling ideas from the effects of light and atmosphere on rural environments. Thomas was, in 1972, the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and within the same year an exhibition was also held at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.[9]


Thomas at opening in the Whitney Museum, 1972

In 2009, two paintings, including Watusi (Hard Edge),[5] by Alma Thomas were chosen by First Lady Michelle Obama, White House interior designer Michael Smith and White House curator William Allman to be exhibited during the Obama presidency.[12] Watusi (Hard Edge) was eventually removed from the White House due to concerns with the piece fitting into the space in Michelle Obama's East Wing office.[13] Sky Light, on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, hung in the Obama family private quarters.[11] In 2015, the Obamas hung Thomas's work Resurrection in the Old Family Dining Room.[14][15] The painting is the first work by an African-American woman to hang in the public spaces of the White House as part of the permanent collection.[15] The choice of Thomas for the White House collection was described as an ideal symbol for the Obama administration by New York Times art critic Holland Cotter. Cotter described Thomas' work as "forward-looking without being radical; post-racial but also race-conscious."[16] Thomas' papers were donated in several periods between 1979 and 2004 to the Archives of American Art by J. Maurice Thomas, Alma Thomas' sister.[6]

Notable exhibitionsEdit

Notable collectionsEdit


  1. ^ Vogel, Carol (October 6, 2009). "A Bold and Modern White House". The New York Times. pp. A14. Archived from the original on June 16, 2013. Retrieved October 7, 2009. 
  2. ^ a b c Dawson, Jessica (April 7, 2005). "An Alumni Reunion On the Hilltop". The Washington Post. pp. C05. Retrieved October 8, 2009. 
  3. ^ Alma Thomas Review The Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2016
  4. ^ a b c d Charles T. Butler (2004). "Alma Thomas (1891–1978)". Individual Artists. The New Georgia Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on June 6, 2011. Retrieved July 6, 2011. 
  5. ^ a b c d Holland Cotter (October 11, 2009). "White House Art: Colors From a World of Black and White". The New York Times. Critic's Notebook. Retrieved July 6, 2011. 
  6. ^ a b c d "Alma Thomas papers, 1894–2000". Finding Aid. Archives of American Art. Retrieved July 6, 2011. 
  7. ^ Alma Thomas; Fort Wayne Museum of Art (1998). Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings. Pomegranate. pp. 43–. ISBN 978-0-7649-0686-2. 
  8. ^ "Alma Thomas's March on Washington …with 250,000 Others". Archives of American Art. August 9, 2013. 
  9. ^ a b c d e Patton, 220.
  10. ^ a b "Alma Woodsey Thomas". Artist Profile. National Museum of Women in the Arts. 2011. Archived from the original on June 24, 2011. Retrieved July 6, 2011. 
  11. ^ a b Blake Gopnik (November 5, 2009). "Alma Thomas's "Watusi (Hard Edge)" Won't Hang in White House". Washington Post. Arts & Living. Retrieved July 6, 2011. 
  12. ^ Vogel, Carol (October 7, 2009). "A Bold and Modern White House". Art & Design. The New York Time. Retrieved July 6, 2011. 
  13. ^
  14. ^ "Rediscovery". The Economist. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved 2016-09-23. 
  15. ^ a b "Alma Thomas is Given Pride of Place at the White House | Culture Type". Retrieved 2016-09-23. 
  16. ^ Robin Cembalest (2009). "Critics Nix Obamas' Pix Mix". Past Issues. ARTnews. Archived from the original on July 7, 2011. Retrieved July 6, 2011. 
  17. ^ "Color Balance: Paintings by Felrath Hines and Alma Thomas". Exhibitions. Nasher Museum of Art. 2011. Retrieved July 6, 2011. 
  18. ^ "Past Exhibits - Alma Thomas". Studio Museum Harlem. Retrieved 11 March 2017. 
  19. ^ "Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers". American Art. Phillips Museum. Retrieved July 6, 2011. 
  20. ^ "Iris, Tulips, Jonquils and Crocuses". Permanent Collection. National Museum of Women in the Arts. 2011. Archived from the original on June 24, 2011. Retrieved January 10, 2017. 
  21. ^ "The Baltimore Museum of Art". Retrieved 2016-02-13. 
  22. ^ "The Metropolitan Museum of Art". Retrieved 2017-01-29. 


Further readingEdit