Artists in 60 Seconds: Alma Thomas

Photograph provided by Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC; used with permission
Alma Thomas (American, 1891-1978). Milky Way, 1972. Acrylic on canvas. 22 x 28 in. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY

Movement, Style, School or Type of Art:

Abstraction, Color Field Painting

Date and Place of Birth:

September 22, 1891, Columbus, Georgia

Life:

Alma Woodsey Thomas' life can be an inspiration to us all. As an undergraduate at Howard Universitiy in Washington, DC (1921-1924), she studied with African American artist James V. Herring (1887-1969), who founded the art department in 1922, and Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998).

She was the first Fine Arts major to graduate.

Thomas then graduated from Columbia Teacher's College with an M.F.A. in 1934, and taught at Shaw Junior High School until 1960. At first, she painted still lifes, fashioned ceramic sculpture and made marionettes with Tony Sarg, who supervised her thesis project.

In 1943, she co-founded the Barnett-Aden Gallery with Herring and Alonzo J. Aden.

At the age of 55, Thomas returned to formal study at American University, taking Jacob Kainen's (1909-2001) abstract painting classes. The year was 1950 and his work was radical! Thomas switched from realism to abstract patterns of colorful geometric forms when Color Field Painting was still in its infancy.

In the 1960s, she joined the local Washington Color School, whose members included Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, and Sam Gilliam. Sizzlng hot with radiant colors, her inspiration came from the natural world, such as fallen leaves, the night sky or a bursting bouquet of flowers.

In 1972, she became the first African American woman artist to mount a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. In 1998, a second solo exhibition was organized by The Fort Wayne Museum of Art in Indiana and this show traveled throughout the country.

The most recent solo exhibition took place in 2001 at Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, Alma Thomas: Phantasmagoria, Major Paintings from the 1970s.

Important Works:

  • Iris, Tulips, Jonquils and Crocuses, 1969, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.
  • Flowers at Jefferson Memorial, n.d., Department of Art, Fisk University, Nashville.
  • Red Rose Sonata, 1972, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
  • Milky Way, 1972. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York.

Date and Place of Death:

February 24, 1978, Washington, D.C.

Sources:

Driskell, David C. Two Centuries of African American Art.
Los Angeles and New York: Los Angeles County Museum and Alfred A. Khopf, 1976.

Comini, Alessandra et al. National Museum of Women Artists.
New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.

Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

Yanari, Sachi et al. Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings.
Fort Wayne, IN: Fort Wayne Museum, 1998

Sim, Lowery Stokes. African American Art: 200 Years.
New York: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 2008.

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