Saturday in the Museum with Alma

Image: Alma Thomas, Still Life (c. 1960).

[NOTE:  In one of those things that can happen in the internet age, one of the curators of the show mentioned below messaged us on IG to say that this piece is not an actual Alma Thomas.  But we still encourage you to join in on the celebration of her life and work – even it this piece is not one hers.]

Across the city events are going on to celebrate the 130th birthday of artist Alma Thomas. The centerpiece is an exhibit entitled Everything is Beautiful.  It is currently at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Va, but arrives at the Phillips at the end of October.  On Saturdays we take a break from posting about D.C. dining to post about art.  Today we join the Thomas chorus and post about a Washingtonian who provided many feasts for the eyes in her own distinctive style.

The story of Alma Thomas is extraordinary, even before you get the considerable merits of her work.  She was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1891.  She moved with her family to D.C. in 1907.  For six years after high school she worked in a settlement house in Delaware, then returned to study at Howard University.  She graduated in 1924 as the first graduate of the art department.  Following graduation she taught at Shaw Junior High School for 35 years.  During that time she earned degrees from Columbia Teachers College in art education. In the fifties, she did additional training at American University where her style began to emerge.  Her talent was on full display in 1965 at a solo exhibit at Howard.  In 1972, she became the first Black woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

She is associated with the Washington Color School, and the paintings that she rose to prominence on are abstract with small blocks of color built into patterns.  However, unlike others in the School, her work is not pure abstraction.  She is clearly representing the natural world. The Smithsonian American Art Museum website describes her work during this peak of creativity and recognition:

“Thomas was in her eighth decade of life when she produced her most important works. Earliest to win acclaim was her series of Earth paintings—pure color abstractions of concentric circles that often suggest target paintings and stripes. Done in the late 1960s, these works bear references to rows and borders of flowers inspired by Washington’s famed azaleas and cherry blossoms. The titles of her paintings often reflect this influence. In these canvases, brilliant shades of green, pale and deep blue, violet, deep red, light red, orange, and yellow are offset by white areas of untouched raw canvas, suggesting jewel-like Byzantine mosaics.

“Man’s landing on the moon in 1969 exerted a profound influence on Thomas, and provided the theme for her second major group of paintings. In 1969 she began the Space or Snoopy series so named because ​Snoopy” was a term astronauts used to describe a space vehicle used on the moon’s surface. Like the Earth series these paintings also evoke mood through color, yet several allude to more than a color reference. In Snoopy Sees a Sunrise of 1970, she placed a circular form within the mosaic patch of colors and accented it with curved bands of light colors. Blast Off depicts an elongated triangular arrangement of dark blue patches rising dramatically and evocatively against a background of pale pinks and oranges. The majority of Thomas’s Space paintings are large sparkling works with implied movement achieved through floating patterns of broken colors against a white background.

“In her last paintings, Thomas employed her characteristic short bars of color and impasto technique. The tones, however, became more subdued, and the formerly vertical and horizontal accents of Thomas’s brush strokes became more diverse in movement, and included diagonals, diamond shapes, and asymmetrical surface patterns. During the artist’s final years, the crippling effects of arthritis prevented her from painting as often as she wanted.”

She passed away in 1978 at the age of 86.  She never married and in lived in the same house her father had bought in 1907 when they first moved to Washington.

This painting was held for a number of years in the collection of Melvin Holmes, a California collector of African-American art.  It appears to have been put up for auction in 2019, after which the online trail goes dry.  Though it is not an abstraction, there are hints of her style that are evident.

The Thomas show runs at the Phillips from October 20 to January 23, 2022.  The National Gallery and American are hosting events this weekend.


Should you be wandering about town taking all this in – or this gorgeous weather – and need a place to eat, we can help you with that too! Our dining guide, we humbly believe, is the best way to find a great place to eat in the District.  Our guide has more than 300 recommended restaurants that you can sort by cuisine, neighborhood, and current operating status (dine-in and/or take-out, etc.) in either LIST or MAP format.

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September 25, 2021