Studio Portrait of Alma Thomas (1972) by Smithsonian Archives of American ArtNational Women’s History Museum
Alma Thomas (1891-1978) was an inspirational African American artist and teacher. She made beautiful paintings inspired by flowers, outer space, music, and dance.
Alma Thomas in Nature (1915) by Smithsonian Archives of American ArtNational Women’s History Museum
Alma was born on September 22, 1891 in Columbus, Georgia
She grew up with 3 younger sisters in a large house on a hill. Her father worked in a church and her mother sewed and managed the house. Alma wanted to be an architect and build bridges, but there were few women in these roles she could look up to as a child.
Flowers, Nature, Color
Alma Thomas also had a garden outside her home. She loved the colors and beauty of nature and marveled at the flowers and trees. Nature would remain a major influence in her art.
What do you find most amazing about nature?
Alma and sister Maurice at their home (1915) by Smithsonian Archives of American ArtNational Women’s History Museum
At 15, the family left Georgia to escape racial violence
They moved to a house on 15th Street N.W. in Washington, D.C. in 1907. Washington, D.C. was a segregated city, meaning African Americans were separated and treated more harshly than white people. But the city still offered more opportunities for African Americans.
Alma studied at Howard University in 1921. Howard opened in 1867 as a university for African Americans. In 1924, Alma was the first person to graduate from Howard’s new art department.
Alma named this work “Fall Begins." Does it remind you of fall or something else entirely?
Alma Thomas working in her studio (1968) by Ida JervisNational Women’s History Museum
Alma decided to take her love of art and turn it into a job
After college, Alma began teaching art at Shaw Junior High School. She loved and supported her students. Alma organized art clubs, lectures, and exhibitions for her students.
While she taught, she also painted. She mostly painted still lifes. Some of Alma’s paintings were featured in art shows alongside work by other African American artists.
What do you see when you think of your favorite season?
In 1960, Alma retired from teaching
She had terrible pain in her hands and almost gave up painting. In 1966, Howard University asked to display some of her paintings. Alma said yes, but wanted to paint something new. Like when she was a child, she looked out her window and admired her garden. She began to paint.
Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset (1970) by Alma ThomasNational Women’s History Museum
People loved her vivid paintings. She used bright colors inspired by the world around her: the beauty of nature and majesty of outer space. She became a key member of the Washington Color Field School, an art movement based in Washington, D.C.
Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music (1976) by Alma ThomasNational Women’s History Museum
Alma Thomas imagined Red Azaleas singing and dancing to rock-and-roll music in this painting. What inspires you to dance?
1972 was a big year for Alma Thomas. She was 80 years old and exhibiting her work in important art museums. She was the first African American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. She was also honored with a one-woman exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The Metropolitan Museum of Art put one of Thomas’s paintings in their permanent collection. Her “Red Roses Sonata” (1972) is still there.
In September 1972, Mayor Walter Washington made the Corcoran exhibit’s opening day “Alma Thomas Day” in Washington, D.C.
Light Blue Nursery (1968) by Alma ThomasNational Women’s History Museum
Alma Thomas died on February 24, 1978
She was a role model for women, African Americans, and older artists. Important museums continue to display her art and people continue to come and see it. Many people think she is one of the most important American abstract painters.
We hope Alma's artwork inspires you to express yourself and create something of your own!
Exhibit curated by Emma Rothberg and Mariana Brandman, Predoctoral Fellows at the National Women's History Museum. 2021.
Images from Alma Thomas papers, circa 1894-2001. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
-- "Alma Thomas," Smithsonian American Art Museum
-- "Alma Woodsey Thomas," National Museum of Women in the Arts
-- Isis Davis-Marks, "Alma Thomas’ Art Takes Center Stage," Smithsonian Magazine, July 19, 2021.
-- Ken Johnson, "Alma Thomas, an Incandescent Pioneer," The New York Times, August 4, 2016
-- Paul Richard, "Alma Thomas Dies," The Washington Post, February 25, 1978
Beneath the Holly Tree: A Comic About Alma Thomas, illustrated by Lauren Lamb
Obiora Anekwe, Alma's Dream (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2019)
"Alma Thomas," Studio Museum Harlem