Biography of Alma Thomas, American Painter of Joyful Abstraction

Alma Thomas, Elysian Fields
Alma Thomas, Elysian Fields, 1973, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Alma Thomas (1891-1978) was an African-American artist best known for her signature style of overlaid planes of colorful, thumb-sized rectangles. As Thomas spent much of her career as a junior high school art teacher, she is only loosely associated with larger artistic movements, like the Washington School of Colorists, which was prominent in the 1950s and 60s and included artists such as Kenneth Noland and Anne Truitt

Fast Facts: Alma Thomas

  • Full Name: Alma Woodsey Thomas
  • Known For: Expressionist abstract painter and art educator
  • Movement: Washington School of Color
  • Born: September 22, 1891 in Columbus, Georgia
  • Parents: John Harris Thomas and Amelia Cantey Thomas
  • Died: February 24, 1978 in Washington, D.C.
  • Education: Howard University and Columbia University
  • Selected Works: Sky Light (1973); Iris, Tulips, Jonquils and Crocuses (1969); Watusi (Hard Edge) (1963); Wind and Crepe Myrtle Concerto (1973); Air View of a Spring Nursery (1966); Milky Way (1969); Flowers at Jefferson Memorial (1977); Red Rose Sonata (1972); Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers (1968); The Eclipse (1970)
  • Notable Quote: "The use of color in my paintings is of paramount importance to me. Through color I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man's inhumanity to man."

Early Life

Alma Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1891, one of four girls. She was the daughter of a local businessman and a dressmaker and was exposed to history, art, and culture as a young girl. Members of her family hosted literary and artistic salons, in which speakers and thinkers brought the wider world into their living room; among them, it is rumored, was Booker T. Washington.

black and white image of Alma Thomas in front of one of her circle abstractions
Alma Thomas at her 1972 Whitney Retrospective. Smithsonian Magazine

When she was a teenager, Thomas moved with her family to Washington, D.C. in order to escape the racism the family experienced in the South, despite their position of prominence and relative affluence in the town’s black community. As black citizens were not permitted to use the local library, nor was there a high school that accepted black students, the family moved to provide an education for the Thomas girls.

Concentric circle Abstraction with yellow outer layers, orange, purple, and blue inner circles
The Eclipse, Alma Thomas (1970). Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Education in the Arts

Thomas attended the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she enrolled at the age of 30. At Howard, she took classes from other iconic black artists, among them Loïs Mailou Jones and James V. Herring, who founded Howard’s art department. Thomas graduated in 1924 as the university’s first fine arts graduate. This was not her last “first”: in 1972 she was the first African-American woman to have a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, which was quickly followed by a retrospective at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C.

Thomas’ education did not end with her Howard degree. She acquired a Master’s in art education from Columbia University and studied abroad in Europe for a semester with the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Thomas was greatly influenced by the French School of Painting, which focused on still life and landscape through the techniques of impressionism, made famous by artists like Claude Monet and Berthe Morisot

Involvement With Black Intellectual Life

Throughout her life, Thomas was involved with significant organizations and institutions in the history of black American intellectual life, among them the Little Paris Group, founded by Thomas’ teacher Loïs Mailou Jones, which was a literary circle made up primarily of black public school art teachers who met weekly in Washington, D.C., throughout the 1940s. Each year’s discussion would result in an exhibition of the artists’ works.

Brick corner townhouse with black and green details
The house in Washington, D.C.'s Logan Circle in which Thomas spent most of her life. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

Thomas also showed her work at (and served as Vice President of) the Barnett Aden Gallery, a black owned and run non-profit art gallery, founded in 1947 by James V. Herring and Alonzo Aden (both of whom were founding members of the Howard University Art Gallery). Though the gallery exhibited the work of all artists regardless of race, it was one of the few places that showed black artists on equal footing with their white contemporaries. It is fitting that Thomas showed in such an egalitarian space, as she would later reflect on the occasion of her Whitney retrospective, “when I was a little girl in Columbus, there were things we could do and things we couldn't...One of the things we couldn't do was go into museums, let alone think of hanging our pictures there. My, times have changed. Just look at me now.”

Artistic Maturity

Though she taught art for 30 years, Thomas did not develop her now-iconic style until the 1960s, after she retired from her career as an art teacher at the age of 69. Asked to contribute to a university alumni art show, she was inspired by the shifting light that would filter between the leaves of trees in her garden. Thomas began to paint her signature abstractions, which she says were meant to evoke the “heavens and stars” and her “idea of what it’s like to be an astronaut, exploring space.” She was given her first solo show in 1960, at the Dupont Theatre Art Gallery. 

Striped canvas in layers of blue, pink, red, orange, and yellow
Alma Thomas, Light Blue Nursery, 1968, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum.  Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Though her work appears to be abstract, the titles evoked specific scenes, even moods, among them Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses (1969), Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music (1976), and Snow Reflections on Pond (1973). Often arranged in lines or circles, these colorful rectangular dabs of the brush seem to shift and glimmer, allowing layers of color below to peek through the spaces. These titles also reveal a deep love for gardening Thomas exhibited throughout her life. 

Death and Legacy

Alma Thomas died at the age of 86 in 1978 in Washington. She was still living in the house her family had moved into when they settled in the capital in 1907. She never married and never had any children. 

During her life she was included in many group shows centered around black artists. It was not until after her death that her work began being included in shows which did not focus on the unifying themes of race or gender identity, but rather was allowed to exist simply as art. 

Her work is in the collections of many major art museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the Smithsonian Museum. One of her paintings was acquired for the White House art collection in 2015, under the presidency of Barack Obama. It was included in the renovation of the White House dining room and was accompanied by works by Anni Albers and Robert Rauschenberg. A retrospective was staged at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2016, and still another is planned to open in her hometown of Columbus, Georgia in 2020, which will include her paintings, as well as the objects of her inspiration. 

Sources

  • Alma Thomas (1891-1978). New York: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery; 2016. http://images.michaelrosenfeldart.com/www_michaelrosenfeldart_com/Alma_Thomas_2016_takeaway.pdf.
  • Richard P. Alma Thomas, 86, Dies. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1978/02/25/alma-thomas-86-dies/a2e629d0-58e6-4834-a18d-6071b137f973/. Published 1978. Accessed October 23, 2019.
  • Selvin C. After Star Turn at Obama White House and Ahead of Touring Retrospective, Alma Thomas Comes to Mnuchin in New York. ARTnews. http://www.artnews.com/2019/09/03/alma-thomas-mnuchin-gallery/. Published 2019.
  • Shirey D. At 77, She's Made It to the Whitney. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1972/05/04/archives/at-77-shes-made-it-to-the-whitney.html. Published 1972.