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Alma Thomas

 (1891 - 1978)
Alma Woodsey Thomas was active/lived in District Of Columbia.  Alma Thomas is known for non objective-optical imagery painting, eteaching.

Alma Thomas

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Biography from the Archives of askART

Known for her exuberantly colorful canvases filled with abstract shapes and patterns, Alma W. Thomas had her first one-woman show at the age of 68, after retiring from a thirty-five year teaching career.  She accomplished many 'firsts' in her lifetime: in 1924, she was the first graduate of the Fine Art Department of Howard University; in 1934, the first African-American woman to gain a Master's degree in art from Columbia University; and, 1972, when she was 80, she was the first African-American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Thomas was born and raised in Columbus, Georgia.  In 1907 she moved with her family to Washington, D.C., into the house where she spent the remaining seven decades of her life.  After graduating from high school, where she excelled at art, Thomas earned a teaching certificate and, later, a master's degree in art education.  Throughout her life, Thomas concentrated on her art; she painted part-time while supporting herself by teaching, mainly at Shaw Junior High School in Washington D.C., where she worked from 1924 until her retirement in 1960. She attended classes at Columbia during the summers in the 1930s, and at American University in the 1950s.  She was active in the Washington art scene, and helped establish the Barnett Aden Gallery and was involved with 'The Little Studio', a group of artists who gathered to exchange ideas and critique each other's work.

Her work reflects a long study of color theory, watercolor, and abstraction, and even exploration of costume and marionette design.  Thomas's early art was realistic, but while at Howard University she became fascinated by abstraction, based on the influence of her professors Lois Mailou Jones and James V. Herring.  When she was invited to exhibit her art at Howard in 1966, at age 75, Thomas decided to experiment with a new approach, the type of painting for which she is best known today: large canvases filled with dense, irregular patterns made by brushes heavily laden with bright colors.  She found inspiration in trees and flowers around her, often as seen from the windows of her Washington D.C home, as they flickered in changing light.  She also liked to imagine seeing natural forms and patterns from a plane, and was fascinated by exploration of outer space.  Her works from the 1970s include titles such as Launch Pad and Blast Off.  Thomas's mature work has been compared with Byzantine mosaics, to the pointillist technique of Georges Seurat.  She has been associated with the paintings of the Washington Color School, such as the work of Morris Louis, Gene Davis and other Color Field painters who were active in the area from the 1950s, yet her work is distinctive.

As a black woman, she encountered many barriers, but did not turn to racial or feminist issues in her art.  She believed the creative spirit to be independent of race or gender.  A lifelong political activist, Thomas offered weekly art classes to children from Washington's poorest neighborhoods, cultivating their appreciation for art, even when she was suffering from severe arthritis.  In her 80s, neither a broken hip nor a heart ailment prevented her from continuing to paint.

Alma Woodsey Thomas work has been shown in retrospectives at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the National Museum of American Art, both in Washington, D.C. Her artwork has been exhibited three times at the White House.

Sources include:
websites of:; The Smithsonian American Art Museum;;; the National Museum of Women in the Arts:

Biography from the Archives of askART
Associated with the Washington, DC Color Field Painters of the 1970s, Alma Woodsey Thomas became the first black woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.  The success of the show took the art world by surprise.

Born in Columbus, Georgia, she had a happy childhood with summers spent on her grandfather's plantation in Fort Mitchell, Alabama where she loved the beautiful landscape, abundant wildflowers and exotic animals, including peacocks.  There she began her first experiments as an artist, molding objects from riverbank clay.

Alma Thomas moved to Washington, DC with her family in 1907 when she was fifteen and lived the remainder of her life there except for six years she taught in Wilmington, Delaware and three years she spend in New York City in the early 1930s.  She attended Armstrong High School and fell in love with the art room.  She took a teaching degree from Howard University, where in 1924, she became the first graduate of its Fine Art Department.  She then earned an M.F.A. at Columbia University Teachers College, and from 1925 to 1960, had an art-teaching career in the Washington, DC public schools, beginning at Shaw Junior High School.

During these years, she was an active artist herself and a major force in the Washington arts scene, organizing clubs and art lectures for her students, establishing art galleries in the public schools, and in 1943, co-founding the Barnett-Aden Gallery, one of the first commercial modern art galleries in the area.

Her early canvases were realistic, but by 1959, her canvases were totally non-representational, and by 1964, after her retirement, she was constructing images almost totally from dabs of paint, creating a tight net of color effect. These works were the breakthrough in her career, and Howard University had a retrospective of her work and in 1972, the Whitney Museum had an important exhibition of her painting which had significant positive impact on her reputation.

Much of her inspiration came from the patches of colors she found looking through her window.

American Women Artists by Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein

Biography from The Johnson Collection
Her father's insistence that his four daughters receive a complete education and escape the increasingly dangerous racial tensions plaguing their Southern hometown altered the course of Alma Woodsey Thomas's life and the advancement of African American artists in the nation's capital. John Thomas, a respected businessman from Columbus, Georgia, relocated his family to Washington, D.C. in 1907, moving into a small brick home that Alma would occupy until her death. From then on, Alma Thomas's life was a series of firsts: the first graduate of Howard University's fledgling fine arts department; the founding vice president of the Barnett Aden Gallery, the first private gallery in Washington to exhibit works by artists of all races; and the first African American female to have a solo exhibition at a major American museum.

Following her high school graduation and completion of a teaching certificate, Thomas taught art for six years at a Delaware settlement house before returning to Washington, D.C. to pursue undergraduate studies at Howard University. Armed with a degree in fine arts—the first Howard student to hold that honor—Thomas embarked on a career as an art instructor at a District of Columbia junior high school, a position she would hold for thirty-five years. During summer breaks, she continued her own art education, eventually earning a master's degree from New York's Columbia University. Passionately committed to the local arts community—and especially to fostering art appreciation among the city's African American youth—Thomas joined her former professors James Herring and Alonzo Aden in the establishment of the Barnett Aden Gallery in 1943. The progressive gallery crossed the color barrier in Washington, showcasing modern works by exceptional artists of all races, including Gene Davis, Jacob Kainen, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Charles White. It also became a cultural hub, fostering the formation of the artists' group known as "The Little Paris Studio" and promoting the works of members of the Washington Color School.

Thomas's own paintings were, for the first twenty-five years of her career, largely representational and not particularly distinguished. However, beginning in the 1950s and in response to additional studies at American University, Thomas's aesthetic changed course. She began experimenting with Cubism and Abstract Expressionism, adaptations that reflected her serious study of color and modernist theory. Following her retirement from Shaw Junior High in 1960 at the age of sixty-nine, she devoted herself to "serious painting." She created exuberant canvases of vibrant color, often consisting of "thousands of small, irregular but usually rectangle squares of color, resembling tesserae, the small mosaic pieces used in Byzantine art." Her exploration of color saturation and interplay also drew on Kenneth Noland's circles and Gene Davis's stripes. These abstractions were often inspired by nature as glimpsed from a window in her kitchen, which doubled as a studio.

A petite woman debilitated by crippling arthritis in her advancing years, Thomas refused to be thwarted by the obstacles—race, gender, and health—that she faced. "Creative art is for all time," she insisted, "and is therefore independent of time. It is . . . common to the whole civilized world, independent of age, race, and nationality." Thomas's systematic investigation of color and stunning modern canvases began to attract national attention beginning in the late 1960s. In 1972, the Whitney Museum of American Art mounted a solo exhibition of her work, making Thomas the first African American to receive a one-woman show at the institution and earning four separate critical reviews from the New York Times. That same year, the Corcoran Gallery exhibited a significant retrospective. Acclaim for her work and person rose steadily through that decade, until her death in 1978.

In addition to the Whitney and Corcoran shows, Thomas's work was exhibited nationally and internationally during her lifetime, including the 35th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting and at the White House. Alma Thomas is represented in the holdings of such major museums as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Howard University Gallery of Art, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Art Institute of Chicago, and Columbus Museum of Art (Georgia).

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia
Alma Woodsey Thomas was born in 1891, in Columbus, Georgia, the eldest of four daughters, to John Harris Thomas and Amelia Cantey Thomas.  The Thomas family provided a nurturing environment that encouraged interest in art and the pursuit of higher education.  With a desire to escape racial tensions in Georgia and to search for better educational and employment opportunities, the Thomas family moved in 1907 to Washington, DC, where extended family members had already relocated.

For Thomas, the move to the nation's capital meant attending a high school that offered art classes.  She stated, "When I entered the art room, it was like entering heaven." (1)  Thomas entered Howard University at the age of 30, graduating in 1924 with the school's first degree in fine arts. (2)

For most of her career she taught art at Shaw Junior High School in Washington, a tenure that lasted 35 years.  She also spent much of her spare time working with African-American children in several Washington neighborhoods cultivating their appreciation for art.

All the while, Thomas supplemented her teaching activity by attending classes at Columbia University during the summers in the 1930s and at American University in the 1950s.  Throughout her life she actively participated in the Washington art scene. She helped establish the Barnett Aden Gallery as well as "The Little Paris Studio," a group of artists that gathered to exchange ideas and criticism.

Throughout her career, Thomas experimented with a variety of artistic styles.  Her early work reflects an interest in figural representation and forays into costume and marionette design.  Ever the student, Thomas also worked through the influences of Cubism and Abstract Expressionism until she achieved success with unique canvases exploring color, nature, and abstraction.  Geographically and stylistically, based on her interest in expressive color, she is often linked with the Washington Color Field painters, but Thomas's oeuvre differs mainly in her utilization of prepared rather than raw canvases. Thomas may have borrowed from her colleagues, but she avoided their process of staining canvases.

Furthermore her subject matter divided her from Washington Color Field painters because by the 1960s her canvases reflect inspiration from nature and her desire to express it through abstraction.  Thomas stated, "Man's highest inspirations come from nature.  A world without color would seem dead.  Color is life.  Light is the mother of color. Light reveals to us the spirit and living soul of the world through colors." (3)

 The year 1960 marked the end of Thomas's formal teaching career and the beginning of the full-time dedication to her art at the age of 69.  She continued to seek criticism from trusted colleagues and friends while aiming to produce a style uniquely her own.

Thomas achieved national recognition in 1972 when she received a one-person exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, a first for an African-American woman. (4)

Essential to her abstract work is a post-impressionist impulse toward painterly form defined by articulated patches of color. (5) For Thomas this was inspired by views from the windows of her Washington, D.C. home: the trees, shrubs, and flowers in her city garden as articulated by a flickering light that varied with time of day and weather.  Layered onto this perceptual experience are her readings of Johannes Itten's The Art of Color (1961), and her fascination with the growing body of data generated by explorations of outer space (titles of Thomas's paintings from 1970 include Launch Pad and Blast Off). 

This last component may have played a crucial role in Untitled, a small work that suggests great scale.  In it Thomas moved toward what on the one hand may be seen as a more minimalist bent than heretofore, but on the other hand may reveal her emphasis on this expanding understanding of the world: her visual arena suggests immense vastness modified with details that bring into play encounters of a more intimate nature.


1. Eleanor Munro, Originals: American Women Artists (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), 193.

2. For the most complete publication of the artist's life to date, see Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings (San Francisco: Pomegranate, 1998); also, see Judith Wilson, "Alma Thomas: A One-Woman Art Movement," Ms. (September 1979).

3. Artists Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis formed the core known as the Washington Color Field School, the group with which Thomas is frequently compared, validating the theories behind her combination of color and abstraction.

4. Alma W. Thomas, exhibition brochure, Whitney Museum of American Art, 25 April - 28 May 1972.

5. Our gratitude to Ruth Fine for her essay on Thomas's watercolors for the Columbus Museum's works on paper collection publication, Lines of Discovery: 225 Years of American Drawings (London & Columbus, GA: GILES & Columbus Museum, May, 2006).

Submitted by Staff, Columbus Museum

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About  Alma Thomas

Born:  1891 - Columbus, Georgia
Died:   1978 - Washington, D.C.
Known for:  non objective-optical imagery painting, eteaching