National Museum of Women in the Arts
Alma Woodsey Thomas
September 22 1891 - February 24 1978
Photograph of Alma Woodsey Thomas working in her studio, ca. 1968, by Ida Jervis. 7 x 5 inches (18 x 13 cm). Alma Thomas papers, 1894-2000. Archives of American Art, Washington, DC, USA.
Place of Birth:
Phonetic Spelling:
AL-mah WOOD-zee TAHM-ahs
Minority status:
Work Type/Media:
Decorative and utilitarian works, Painting
Artistic Role(s):
Painter, Puppet Maker
Artist's Biography:
Alma Woodsey Thomas had her first solo exhibition at the age of sixty-eight and developed her signature style seven years later. Despite her belated start, Thomas went on to have retrospectives at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the National Museum of American Art, both in Washington, DC; she was the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art; and she exhibited her paintings at the White House on three occasions.

Thomas was born and raised in Columbus, Georgia. In 1907, she moved with her family to Washington, DC, into the house where she spent the remaining seven decades of her life. After graduating from high school, where she excelled at art, Thomas earned a teaching certificate and, later, a Master’s degree in art education. Throughout her life, Thomas concentrated on her career; she painted part time while supporting herself by teaching art, notably at Shaw Junior High School, where she worked from 1924 until her retirement in 1960.

Thomas’ early art was realistic. However at Howard University, where she was the Art Department’s first graduate in 1924, she became fascinated by Abstraction, based on the influence of her professors Lois Mailou Jones and James V. Herring. When she was invited to exhibit her art at Howard in 1966, Thomas decided to experiment with the new approach, developing the type of painting for which she is best known today: large abstract canvases filled with dense, irregular patterns made by brushes heavily laden with bright colors. Thomas’ mature work has been compared with Byzantine mosaics, the Pointillist technique of Georges Seurat, and the paintings of the Washington Color School, yet her work is quite distinctive.

A lifelong political activist, Thomas offered weekly art classes to children from Washington’s poorest neighborhoods even when she was suffering from severe arthritis. In her eighties, neither a broken hip nor a debilitating heart ailment prevented her from continuing to paint.

Other Occupation(s):
Activist, Director (Museum), Educator, Teacher
Place(s) of Residence:
Where Trained/Schools:
Tyler School of Art, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, USA (1958) American University, Washington, DC, USA (1950-1960) Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA (1930-1934) Steinhardt School of Education, New York University, New York, NY, USA (1927) Howard University, Washington, DC, USA (1921-1924)
Related Visual Artists:
student and friend of Lois Mailou Jones student of James V. Herring student of Robert Gates student of Joe Summerford student of Tony Sarg student of Jacob Kainen friend of Thomas Downing friend of Sam Gilliam friend of Céline Marie Tabary colleague of Mary Beth Edelson
Fellowships, grants and awards:
Purchase Prize, Howard University, Washington, DC, USA (1963) First Prize, Capitol Hill Community Art Show, Washington, DC, USA (1962) First Prize in Oils, Outdoor Art Fair, United States Department of Commerce, Washington, DC, USA (1939)
Earliest exhibition:
First Annual Exhibition of the Lois Jones and Céline Tabary Studio Group, Inspiration House, Washington, DC, USA (1951)
NMWA exhibition(s):
Four Centuries of Women's Art: The National Museum of Women in the Arts
Artist retrospective(s):
Alma Thomas: Phantasmagoria, Major Paintings from the 1970's, The Women's Museum: An Institute for the Future, Dallas, TX, USA (2001) A Life in Art: Alma Thomas, 1891-1978, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC, USA (1981-1982) Alma W. Thomas: Retrospective Exhibition, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA (1972)
Related places
Washington (died at)
Iris, Tulips, Jonquils and Crocuses, 1969
Orion, 1973