Alma Thomas

Alma Thomas: The Artist History Almost Forgot

Alma Thomas was an abstract painter who used her own developed knowledge of colour theory to create beautiful watercolours and abstract images.

Thomas’ life-long study of colour theory enabled her to create her images in a pleasing and scholarly way.

As an African American painter from the 1960s, Thomas was almost forgotten as a magician with colour until one of her works was procured by a certain high profile African American family.


Alma Thomas

Born on 22nd September 1891 in Columbus, Georgia, Alma Thomas was the eldest of four daughters. She was the daughter of a seamstress and her father worked at the church. Thomas’ family were well known within Columbus and she lived comfortably during her childhood.

In 1927, Thomas graduated from Howard University’s newly formed art department. With her wide knowledge of the history of art, Thomas later graduated with a Masters in the Arts from Columbia University in 1937.

Moreover, in the 1950s, Thomas began her studies under Jacob Kainen, Joe Summerford and Robert Gates which inevitably led to her interest in abstraction through colour.

Thomas was a talented painter. However, her watercolour representations did not draw enough interest. Throughout her career as an art teacher, Thomas displayed her work without recognition.

It was in the 1960s that Thomas’ works came into their own. Following her retirement from teaching, Thomas suffered heavily from arthritis and struggled to create the detailed images she had previously been producing. In 1966, Howard University offered her a major show. Thomas wanted to create something new.

Inspired by the colours outside her window created by the changing light on the foliage below, Thomas took to a canvas. This period marks a move to Expressionism which quickly to a form of Abstraction that appears in Thomas’ most well-known works.

Thomas’ life-long study of colour theory enabled her to create her images in a pleasing and scholarly way.

Finally, in 1972, Alma Thomas was offered a major solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The exhibition made her the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney. At the time, Alma Thomas was 81 years old.

The Acquisition

In February 2015, Michelle Obama opened the doors to the White House dining room for the first time in history. It was during this opening that the world witnessed a spectacular painting of colourful circles created by dots.

Alma Thomas’ ‘Resurrection’ was painted in 1966, most likely for Howard University’s retrospective of her work. It is painted using acrylic and mixed with some areas of graphite to create a pleasing image to the eye. Flanked by Rauschenberg and both of the Albers, Thomas holds her own.

To see the true impact of the painting to the room one just needs to see it hanging above the table in Michelle Obama’s image of a Passover seder in the White House in 2015.

As a result, the presence of this work in the White House Collection was groundbreaking. Not only were the Obamas the first to acquire African American art. They were the first to acquire a female African American artist.

Abstract Expressionism

Alma Thomas

Thomas’ level of success as a female African American artist has only increased through the knowledge that she was an ‘Abstract Expressionist’.

The Abstract Expressionists were a group that sought to create the perfect level of abstraction through the use of colour and not form. These artists include Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and William De Kooning to name a few.

These men were big players in the art scene following World War II and the emergence of philosophies such as Existentialism. The whole idea of ‘what’s the point?’ centres in these canvases covered in colour.

However, it remains the case that these men are the only artists when one thinks of Abstract Expressionism.

Alma Thomas’ late ‘resurrection’ in popularity in recent years, thanks to the work of the Obamas, has meant that her work has begun to fight back.

Consequently, Thomas deserves recognition, her work on colour theory and determination to improve in later life demonstrate her strength as a female African American during the 1960s. She is an artist worth remembering, not a woman to feature in ‘forgotten artists’ books.  (Which she still does!)

Like Amy Sherald, who painted Michelle Obama’s portrait, Thomas shows a similar use of colour to depict emotion but in a completely abstract way.

There is a reason that these women were chosen by the First Lady. Their power as female artists is shown through their painting and is worth the recognition as two of the greatest female artists in history.


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