“The history of art is defined as being a profession that only the male can travel in, and people felt that only the aristocratic families could deal [art]. Alma had the modesty, the tenacity, and the time.” —Sam Gilliam
The White House is getting a modern twist. On October 6, Michelle Obama released the works on loan to the White House collection. While several big name artists were chosen (Mark Rothko & Jasper Johns, to name a few), an important figure in the history of the arts in DC slipped in almost unnoticed.
The artist is the African-American Expressionist painter Alma Thomas. The first to graduate from Howard University‘s art department, Thomas was also one of the first African-American women to hold a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. She was also the first African-American woman to earn a master’s degree in fine arts from Columbia University. In 1934, she returned to DC to teach the arts in schools. During her distinguished career, she retained a presence in the local arts community and developed the colorful abstract style for which she is known. In the 1960’s, she retired from teaching to focus solely on her own art. Her Expressionist style has been compared to the Byzantine style and the pointillist paintings of Georges-Pierre Seurat. Among her many notable accomplishments, Thomas is the first African American woman to have a solo art exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art and is a member of the Washington Color School.
Don’t have front-row access to the White House collection? You can also view her works in the permanent collections in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.