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Honoring the Legacy of Alma Thomas: A Painter Who Transcended Discrimination

Portrait of Alma Thomas by Michael Fischer, 1976, via Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.

Welcome to yet another article of the Arts to Hearts Project’s highly informative and inspiring ‘Women Artists From The Past Series’. This series is a celebration of the exemplary lives of women who have left an indelible mark in their respective fields. Our aim is to draw inspiration from the sheer tenacity and unwavering grit these women exhibited in their pursuits, oftentimes in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Today, our focus is on the remarkable life of Alma Thomas, a woman whose life and art continue to captivate and inspire. Thomas was a revolutionary artist, akin to a breath of fresh air blowing through the art world of her time. Unafraid to deviate from convention and experiment with bold new techniques, she dared to challenge the status quo and challenge the limits of what art could be.

Alma Thomas: The Abstract Painter Who Broke the Rules Of Social Discrimination

Alma Thomas
(Alma Thomas), 1947, 30 x 25 1⁄8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum

Alma Woodsey Thomas was a revolutionary artist and a trailblazer for African-American painters in America. She created a name for herself not only for being African American but also for challenging the norms of contemporary art. Compared to other known painters during her time, Alma’s style of painting was loud, vibrant, and full of life. Her work initiated a new sector in modernism and had significant importance in contemporary abstract painting.

Early Life and Education

Alma was born in 1891 in Columbus, Georgia, USA, to John Harris Thomas and Amelia Cantey. She grew up in a family that valued education and artistic pursuits. Her father was a businessman and a painter, while her mother was a seamstress. Alma’s strong influence in art and music came from her father, who encouraged her to pursue her passions. Her love for art started at a young age, which led her toward an artistic career.

In 1907, Alma and her family moved to Washington, D.C. so that she could attend Howard University. Alma studied music and the piano initially, but eventually, she switched to fine arts, as she found it more inspiring. She was taught by professors such as James V. Herring, Lois M. Jones, and James Porter, all of whom supported and encouraged her artistry. Alma graduated in 1924 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, becoming the first graduate and art student born in the South to earn this degree.

Career and Style

After completing her degree, Alma started her teaching career in D.C. schools, where she taught art for 35 years at the Shaw Junior High School. Her teaching career didn’t stop her from pursuing her creativity, as she continued to experiment with her unique style of painting. Her work was a mix of both figurative and abstract forms, which were later moved to completely non-representational abstract paintings. Alma’s paintings were a blend of vivid colors, intricate patterns, and brushstrokes, which were influenced by nature – particularly the seasons and landscape of Washington, D.C.

Alma’s breakthrough came in the late 1960s when, at the age of 74, she had her first solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. It was a huge success, and she caught the attention of the art world as an influential abstract artist. Alma’s work developed quickly after that, experimenting with different patterns, colors, and styles. Her distinct and innovative use of color, which she called “color chords,” became an integral part of her paintings’ aesthetics.

alma thomas
Thomas at the opening in the Whitney Museum, 1972

Career as a Senior Art Instructor:

In 1925, Alma began teaching art at Shaw Junior High School in Washington, D.C. She taught for an impressive 35 years, inspiring and mentoring countless students during that time. Many of her students went on to become successful artists in their own right. Alma was a well-known figure in the Washington D.C. art community and held multiple exhibitions of her work during her teaching tenure.

alma thomas
March on Washington by Alma Thomas, 1964, via Studio Museum Harlem

Famous Works:

Alma Thomas’s most famous paintings are her abstracts which she started creating after her retirement in 1960. Her paintings were characterized by her bold use of color and an exuberant and joyful style that was influenced by her love for nature.

Her compositions were usually elaborate grids of bright colors that gave her paintings a unique sense of movement and rhythm. In 1972, Alma’s famous piece “Resurrection” was purchased by the Whitney Museum of American Art, making her the first African American woman to have her artwork acquired by a mainstream museum.

Resurrection by Alma Thomas, 1966, via the White House Historical Association, Washington D.C.

Legacy

Alma left a lasting impression on the world of art, particularly for African Americans in the visual arts. She was a trailblazer who achieved multiple firsts in her time. She broke down barriers for artists of color and encouraged the growth of future talents. Alma’s painting techniques are still studied and admired today. Various institutions, including the White House, have acquired her paintings to display and celebrate. Her legacy serves as an inspiration and testament to what one can achieve with hard work and dedication.

Alma Woodsey Thomas died in 1978, but her work continues to inspire new generations of artists to experiment with form and color. Her work was a tribute to her creative imagination and helped bring more diversity to the art world by bridging the gap between the traditional canon of art and African-American artists’ work. Thomas was a pioneer of abstract painting, and her contribution to the evolution of contemporary art has been recognized and appreciated across the world.

Alma Thomas- An Inspiration For Artists


Alma Thomas was a phenomenal artist, teacher, and an example of resilience in the face of discrimination. Her dedication to the arts and her perseverance in the face of adversity is nothing short of inspiring. Alma’s vivid paintings were a reflection of a life well lived, full of experiences and emotions that she painted onto the canvas. Her work continues to attract, inspire, and redefine contemporary art.

Her journey from being a graduate student at Howard University to becoming a celebrated artist is a testament to hard work and dedication. Her vibrant, sophisticated, and elegant abstract paintings breaking away from the conventional style still resonate with art enthusiasts.

Alma Woodsey Thomas is an inspiration for all artists, with her non-conventional style and her daring approach to color and form. She will always be remembered as an icon, whose talent and passion for art surpassed the limits of race and gender, and whose remarkable career has left an indelible mark on American Art. Alma Thomas, through her legacy, has left an indelible mark in the art world, and she will always be admired for her contribution to contemporary art.

So this was all from today’s women from the past series and if you are interested in learning more about the inspiring lives of women artists from the past then you will love our article about Angelica Kauffman, Mary Cassatt, and many more on our website.


These women have left a lasting legacy through their remarkable works of art. From their innovative use of form and color to their powerful messages, these women have used art as an outlet to share their stories and perspectives. They have paved the way for other women artists to thrive and create beautiful works of art.

So, if you’re looking for some inspiration and want to learn more about the inspiring lives of women artists from the past, then you’ve come to the right place. We’d love to hear from you if you have any favorite artists from the past that you would like us to feature. Just reach out to us at [email protected].

Until then, keep creating the magic that you do, and have a fantastic week ahead!

Image Source:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alma_Thomas

https://www.thecollector.com/alma-thomas-abstract-painting/

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