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Alma Thomas / American Art
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Alma Thomas Portrait

Alma Thomas

Also Known as: Alma Woodsey Thomas, Alma W. Thomas

Born:
Columbus, Georgia 1891

Died:
Washington, District of Columbia 1978

Photo Caption:
Laura Wheeler Waring, Portrait of Alma Thomas, ca. 1945, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Vincent Melzac 1977.121.

Luce Artist Quote

"What I would rather do is to paint something beautiful." Thomas, quoted in Foresta, A Life in Art: Alma Thomas, 1891-1978, 1981


Biography

During the 1960s Alma Thomas emerged as an exuberant colorist, abstracting shapes and patterns from the trees and flowers around her. Her new palette and technique—considerably lighter and looser than in her earlier representational works and dark abstractions—reflected her long study of color theory and the watercolor medium.

Red Sunset, Old Pond Concerto [SAAM, 1977.48.5] emphasizes the intensity of a sunset as it overtakes a landscape, penetrating layers of greenery to strike darkening water. Broken rows of color pats, a hallmark of her mature style, alternate with emphatic vertical bands. Their irregular intervals create a visual rhythm akin to music, while dappled reds, greens, and blue-blacks orchestrate subtle nuances and dramatic contrasts. Thomas frequently talked about "watching the leaves and flowers tossing in the wind as though they were singing and dancing." She also liked to imagine seeing natural forms from a plane. Her lyrical interpretation of a pond at sunset suggests a blending of these two perspectives.

As a black woman artist, Thomas encountered many barriers; she did not, however, turn to racial or feminist issues in her art, believing rather that the creative spirit is independent of race or gender. In Washington, D.C., where she lived and worked after 1921, Thomas became identified with Morris Louis, Gene Davis, and other Color Field painters active in the area since the 1950s. Like them, she explored the power of color and form in luminous, contemplative paintings.

Lynda Roscoe Hartigan African-American Art: 19th and 20th-Century Selections (brochure. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art)

Additional Biographies

Luce Artist Biography

Alma Thomas grew up in Columbus, Georgia, then moved to Washington, D.C., in 1907 with her family. In high school, she described the art classroom as a "beautiful place" that was just like "entering heaven" (Munro, Originals: American Women Artists, 1979). In 1921 she was the first student to enroll in Howard University’s fine arts course, where she painted still lifes and made ceramic sculptures. Thomas taught art to junior high school students in Washington for more than thirty years, postponing any serious painting until after her retirement in 1960. She organized several marionette plays for the students, combining her love for theater and stage design with her skills as a sculptor. (Foresta, A Life in Art: Alma Thomas, 1891-1978, 1981) Thomas started out as a representational painter but soon turned to abstraction, creating colorful images inspired by the patterns in nature. In 1972 she was the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York.