Alma Thomas

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Title: Light Blue Nursery, 1968
Acrylic on Canvas, 49 x 48 inches
Image Courtesy of SAAM


Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891 – 1978)

A distinguished figure in American art, Alma Thomas created vibrant abstract paintings. Her unique style and dedication to color and form brought her recognition as an artist and a pioneering African American woman. In this biography, we explore the life, work, and legacy of Alma Thomas paintings and artwork.

Early Life and Education

Born in 1891 in Columbus, Georgia, Alma Thomas was the oldest of four children. Her family moved to Washington D.C. in 1907. Their relocation was motivated by racial violence in Georgia and educational opportunities in the capital. Thomas attended Armstrong Technical High School where her interest in the arts began. She later pursued her passion for art by enrolling at Howard University, becoming the first graduate of their fine arts program in 1924. This marked the beginning of her journey into the world of art, setting the stage for a groundbreaking career.

Teaching Career and Artistic Development

After college, Alma Thomas took a position teaching art at Shaw Junior High School in Washington D.C., where she worked for 35 years. Her teaching career did not hinder her artistic pursuits but rather enriched them. Thomas continued her education, receiving a Master’s degree in art education from Columbia University in 1934. She later attended American University, where she studied abstract expressionism and color field painting.

Artistic Style and Themes

Alma Thomas is best known for her abstract paintings. Her artwork is often associated with the Washington Color School, a movement that emphasized the use of pure color. She retired from teaching in 1960 and then focused solely on her art. Her work from this period uses bright expressive colors arranged in circular and mosaic-like patterns that mimic natural forms and landscapes. The paintings are not only a celebration of color and composition but also reflect Thomas’s lifelong interest in the natural world and its beauty.

Alma Thomas Paintings and Exhibitions

Alma Thomas’s art career took a significant turn in 1963 when she had her first solo exhibition at Howard University. She was 71 at the time, proving that her artistic voice only grew stronger with age. Her work received great acclaim, leading to more exhibitions and a notable 1972 solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. This exhibition made her the first black woman to have a solo show at the Whitney.

Thomas’s paintings, Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music are prime examples of her ability to transform her observations of the world into vibrant, rhythmic compositions. Her use of small, distinct brushstrokes creates a sense of movement and vitality.

Legacy and Influence

After her death in 1978, her artwork continued to gain recognition. Her legacy is one of perseverance, innovation, and inspiration. It speaks to embracing one’s vision and voice, regardless of the obstacles. Today, her works are in major museums across the country, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In recent years, interest in Alma Thomas’s paintings has resurged. Her artwork is a pioneering contribution to abstract art and the celebration of life and nature. As a result, Thomas is a significant figure in African American art and an important artist in American modernism.


Alma Thomas’s journey from a passionate young art student to a celebrated artist is a testament to her talent, resilience, and unwavering dedication. With paintings that continue to motivate young artists and art lovers, her artwork offers a lush, vibrant perspective on the world around us. Through her paintings, Alma Thomas broke barriers and set a precedent for artists of color, making her an enduring figure in American art history.