Artist Profile: Alma Thomas & the Washington Scene

Laura Wheeler Waring, Portrait of a Lady, oil on canvas, 1947.
Image Courtesy of Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Alma Thomas: Early Life & Career

Born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1891, Alma Thomas was the eldest of four daughters in a family immersed in art and culture. The Thomas family moved to 1530 15th Street, NW, Washington, DC, in 1907—a smart brick townhouse where Thomas would live the rest of her life. She first attended art classes while studying at Armstrong Manual Training High School, where she graduated in 1911. After teaching in Delaware, Thomas entered Howard University in 1921. Switching from the home economics department to Professor James V. Herring’s new fine art department, Thomas became the university’s first art major graduate in 1924. She went on to have a distinguished 35-year career teaching art at Shaw Junior High School in Washington, organizing popular marionette and extracurricular art clubs for its students.

Alma Thomas: the 1940s & Barnett-Aden Gallery

At Auction December 1: Alma Thomas, Carousel, gouache on paper, 1946. Estimate $12,000 to $18,000.

Thomas was an early supporter of Washington’s Barnett-Aden Gallery and the gallery’s first vice president. Founded by partners Professor Herring and curator Alonzo J. Aden in 1943, it was only the second private African-American-owned gallery and the first to exhibit Black and white artists together. There, her painting was later exhibited alongside Gene Davis, Richard Dempsey, Lois Mailou Jones, Jacob Kainen, Jacob Lawrence, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Irene Rice Pereira, Theodoros Stamos, and many others. Thomas was also connected to the African American artist community as an active member of Lois Mailou Jones and Celine Tabary’s “Little Paris Studio.” The studio hosted painting and drawing sessions with live models and met on the top floor of Jones’s Washington home—other members included Richard Dempsey and Delilah Pierce.

Alma Thomas: the 1950s, American University & Early Exhibitions

Alma Thomas focused on her painting practice in earnest in the early 1950s. She enrolled in painting classes taught by Jacob Kainen and Robert Gales while studying art and art history at American University in the 1950s. She first exhibited her painting in the 8th Annual Exhibition of Paintings, Sculptures and Prints by Negro Artists at Atlanta University in 1952 and then in Six Washington Painters at the Barnett-Aden Gallery in 1954. Thomas also exhibited her painting in the group Contemporary American Painting at Howard University Gallery of Art in 1958; by the next year, Thomas’s painting had shifted from modernist still life and figurative paintings to primarily abstract compositions inspired by nature.

Alma Thomas: the 1960s & 70s, and An Evolution into Her Mature Artistic Style

At Auction December 1: Alma Thomas, Reflections, oil on canvas, 1960. Estimate $450,000 to $650,000.

In 1960, she retired from Shaw Junior High and began a full-time dedication to her art at the age of 69. The Dupont Theatre Art Gallery, a non-commercial contemporary art space where Gene Davis had his first solo exhibition in 1952, gave Thomas her first solo exhibition in 1960 of her watercolors. With such a popular response, she was awarded solo exhibitions there for two more years. Thomas also participated in the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, which made a lasting impression, as she briefly returned to figuration to paint her impression of the historical event. In 1964, her abstract period of painting was interrupted by a severe attack of arthritis—an interval that led to her “mature” style and her first retrospective at Howard University in 1966.

At Auction December 1: Alma Thomas, Untitled, watercolor on paper, circa 1970. Estimate $35,000 to $50,000.

The retrospective marks the beginning of her iconic series of vertical stripe abstractions and her shift to painting in acrylic. She exhibited these paintings in a critically acclaimed solo exhibition at the influential Franz Bader Gallery in Washington in September of 1968, her first at a major commercial gallery. Alma Thomas began her Space Series of abstract paintings in 1969, inspired by the NASA space program and the televised images of the Apollo missions and moon landings. In 1970, she exhibited both her Earth and Space paintings at the Franz Bader Gallery, Washington, DC, and the following year, at the Carl Van Vechten Gallery of Fisk University, Nashville. She then painted her color field Atmospheric Effects series of paintings in 1971.

Alma Thomas, Untitled (Atmospheric Effects Series), acrylic on paper, 1971. Sold March 2022 for $209,000.

Alma Thomas finally achieved national recognition in April of 1972 with her celebrated solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, its first for an African American woman, while a retrospective of her work was held later that year at The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. By 1976, her works were acquired by more than a dozen institutions and included in several important exhibitions, including the hugely influential Two Centuries of African American Art organized by David C. Driskell at LACMA.