Treasures from the Vault: Alma Thomas

Sachi Yanari-Rizzo, Curator of Prints & Drawings

Alma Thomas experienced a lifetime of firsts. In 2014, Michelle Obama selected Resurrection (1966) to hang in the White House dining room, becoming the first work by an African American woman to enter the White House collection.

Born in 1891 in Columbus, Georgia, Alma Thomas and her family moved to Washington, D.C. in 1907, seeking a better life beyond the segregated South. Their house, located at 1530 Fifteenth Street, NW, is now on the National Register for Historic Places, and remained her home until her death in 1978. In 1924 she graduated from Howard University as its first fine arts major. She received her M.A. in Art Education from Columbia University’s Teachers College ten years later.   

Thomas’ first career was devoted to being an art teacher at Washington, D.C.’s Shaw Junior High School. She earned her living as an educator for thirty-five years. “People always want to cite me for my color paintings,” she said, “but I would much rather be remembered for helping to lay the foundation of children’s lives. I tried to develop them culturally and expand their perspectives.”i  Thomas orchestrated marionette shows and plays for students. She also organized an arts league club and arts club that took junior high school members on field trips to museums and lectures.    

In the meantime, Thomas was an active member of the Washington, D.C. art scene.  She attended art openings and co-founded the Barnett Aden Gallery, the first private gallery in D.C. to exhibit the work of artists of every race. Thomas furthered her art education at American University and studied with Robert Gates, Ben Summerford, and Jacob Kainen, who became a friend and mentor. It was only after her retirement in 1960, at age sixty-nine, that she finally gave painting her undivided attention.  

Thomas’ earliest paintings include still lifes, however, she quickly relinquished recognizable subject matter. Her forays into abstraction in the 1950s to early 1960s tended to be moody, dominated by dense blues and greens in oil. At the same time, Thomas painted countless sketches in watercolor, like the museum’s untitled piece (shown below). She painted large passages with highly saturated colors. There is an airy freshness to the works as she allowed the white of the paper to peek through. Thomas enlivened these fluid color fields with calligraphic lines in black, perhaps alluding to tree trunks and limbs.   

An abstract watercolor, Thomas mixes spheres of color with slashes of black lines. The white of the background peeks through the oranges, blues, greens, and pinks that stain the paper.
Alma Thomas, African American, 1891-1978. Untitled. Watercolor on paper, 1967. Gift of an Anonymous Donor, 1976.10. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

These vibrant sketches seemed to be instructive in her development towards her signature paintings in acrylic, sharing an affinity with Washington Color School artists Kenneth Noland and Gene Davis, whose non-objective works focused on the use of color through its optical effects and geometric structure. Like them, Thomas preferred acrylic paint and believed color and light to be the foremost elements in her work. She used discrete strokes arranged into striped fields and concentric circles against a white ground. Unlike them, however, she did not use unprimed canvas that would have allowed her paints to soak in and stain the canvas. She likened her abstractions to the natural world and celestial phenomena. 

Thomas’ brilliant range of colors can be linked to the city’s renowned flowers and trees in springtime and fall. The artist compared looking at nature from up above in an airplane, because from there you can see simple streaks of color. She credited her living room window as a source of inspiration. The artist was transfixed by the abstract patterns formed by light shining through the leaves of her holly tree that would continually change and offer new designs with the wind through her window. Her titles refer to nature and its colors, sounds, and movement: Babbling Brook and Whistling Poplar Trees SymphonyBreeze Rustling through Fall FlowersFiery Sunset, and Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music, to name a few.   

In the early 1970s, Thomas shifted away from her striped compositions and began limiting the number of colors in a painting to explore color harmonies and contrasts, sometimes exploring optical vibrations. The ground became an even more important element in the viewing of the work. In the museum’s piece Wind Sparkling Dew and Green Grass, Thomas did not realistically paint a grassy field but evoked it through mosaic-like shapes painted in a limited range of greens. These irregular shapes pop out against the white ground and together they create the effect of subtle movement and rhythm, perhaps an abstract interpretation of the glistening morning dew that dances on the blades of grass in the sunlight.     

An acrylic painting reminiscent of Pointillism, the canvas is spotted with thick brushstrokes in two colors: teal and dark, navy blue. The brushstrokes are geometrical, seeming to dance across the canvas.
Alma Thomas, African American, 1891-1978. Wind Sparkling Dew and Green Grass. Acrylic on canvas, 1973. Gift of Vincent Melzac, 1976.04. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Thomas garnered national recognition in 1972, when she became the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. This was followed by a show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in D.C. Thomas mused how times had changed since as a young person growing up in Georgia she would not have been permitted into the library unless she carried a mop and broom. 

Besides small exhibitions in New York and Washington, D.C., during the 1970s-1980s, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art organized a major retrospective exhibition in 1998. More recent attention has come in the form of exhibitions in 2016 and an upcoming traveling exhibition opening in summer 2021 at the Chrysler Museum of Art, followed by three more venues. 


iAlma Thomas Papers, microfilm, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. 

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