Alma Thomas

1891-1978

LAMA set the world auction record for any work by Alma Thomas on March 5, 2017 with Spring Flowers in Washington D.C. (1969) realizing $387,500.

About The Artist

In recent years, the legacy of artist Alma Thomas (1891-1978) has experienced a renaissance among curators and scholars who celebrate the artist for her pioneering contribution to the history of abstract painting. Thomas’s style synthesized her study of Abstract Expressionism and The Washington Color School, to create abstract works, infused with vibrant hues.  

As an African-American woman in a largely male-dominated, white sphere, Thomas forged her own path. She continuously educated herself on contemporary art developments and trends.  In 1924, Thomas graduated from Howard University with a degree in Fine Art, having switched her major from home economics after two years. For 35 years Thomas dedicated her life to teaching art at Shaw Junior High School in Washington D.C. During this time, Thomas also completed an MFA from Columbia University Teachers College. At the age of 69, she retired from teaching and began to paint full-time, surrounding herself with The Washington Color School artists including Kenneth Noland, Sam Gilliam and Morris Louis. In 1972, she became the first African-American female artist to be granted a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Thomas’s early works were representational, but over time she began to experiment with dark, abstract watercolor paintings. As the 1960s progressed, her work continued to evolve and began to draw on an increasingly bright and vibrant palette. It is in this phase of work that the influence of her artistic heroes Henri Matisse, Josef Albers and Wassily Kandinsky, as well as her study of color theory, began to fully develop. A gifted colorist, Thomas’s oeuvre vibrates with energy. Many of her compositions employed geometric shapes comprised of blocky daubs of pure, saturated paint.  Despite their loose appearance, Thomas’s paintings were intricately constructed and emphasized negative space as much as its positive counterpart. 

Thomas also drew inspiration from the natural world, returning again and again to the forms of the garden at her home in Washington D.C., where she lived for most of her life. Always intrigued by optical effects, Thomas was delighted by the myriad patterns generated by dappled light filtering through the leaves of her trees, stating, “That became my inspiration. There are six patterns in there right now that I can see. And every morning… the wind has given me new colors through the windowpanes.” Spring Flowers in Washington D.C. (1969) was likely the result of such an experience as the composition presents both a single flower, and dozens at once.

Thomas’s work is held in numerous national collections including the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; the Columbus Museum, GA; Tampa Museum of Art, FL and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA. A major survey of her work was presented at the influential Studio Museum in Harlem, New York City in 2016, which has cemented her reputation as one of the most important abstract painters of the 20th century.

 

Munro, E. Originals: American Women Artists. New York City: Simon and Schuster. 1979. 194.

Yanari, S. ‘Introduction’. Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings. San Francisco: Fort Wayne Museum of Art. 1998. 14.

 

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