Alma Thomas, 1891-1978

Alma Thomas,  Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset , 1970, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC

Alma Thomas, Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset, 1970, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC

By Janis Petzinger

Alma Thomas was born on September 22nd in 1891 in Columbus, Georgia, but racial violence caused her and her family to move to Washington DC, where she could enter a good public school system. It was here that her family noticed her interest in the arts; she would make puppets and sculptures at home. She enrolled at Howard University and became its first student to receive a degree in fine art. She proceeded to become a teacher at Shaw Junior High School, and worked there until her retirement in 1963.  

Perhaps her work with kids inspired the playful compositions that are so prevalent in her work. The vibrant colours she added to her canvases, one block at a time, syncopated into a cheerful beat. This is what makes her artwork so fresh and exciting for her time; her strong use of rhythm transcends the limits of Colour-Field painting. Unlike the mopey abstract expressionists that have been pounded into our brains (Pollock, Rothko, Motherwell, etc) we see in Thomas’s work exhibits a strong lyrical optimism where colour upon colour bop together on the canvas. This occurs in “Untitled,” from her Music series, where she described the work to be like “red azaleas singing and dancing to rock and roll music.” 

She saw some success in her lifetime, such as being the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney in 1978, coupled with her ground-breaking show at the Concoran Gallery of Art. However, Thomas’s legacy has not held much of a place in the cultural memory of Abstract Expressionism, being widely left out of textbooks and the press; but this is starting to change. She was featured in MoMa’s robust show Making Space: Woman Artists and Postwar Abstraction, and she was also featured in her own Studio Museum in Harlem Retrospective in 2016.

It is a shame that her career was so short, and her collection of art is so small; yet her sense of abiding kinetic energy on the canvas, endures.



Johnson, Ken. ‘Alma Thomas: An Iridescent Painter”. Accessed 1 September.

Sheets, Hilary. “Museums Bring Pioneering Painter Alma Thomas out of Storage for Her First Major Retrospective in over 30 Years”, Accessed 23rd August.