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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Diversity in White House Art: Alma Thomas

On October 14, 2016, First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a reception celebrating the recent renovation of the Old Family Dining Room, located on the State Floor of the White House. After welcoming her guests, Mrs. Obama delivered remarks about the space, including the addition of twentieth-century abstract artwork by diverse artists:

As many of you know, the President and I, we are true art lovers. We don’t know as much as some of our friends do, but we hope when we get out of here we’ll learn a little bit more. But we think that all our country’s great artists have a place within these walls...And today, the Old Family Dining Room is a highlight of the public tour and an enduring tribute to modern artists--from the Art Deco tea service, to the woven rug, to the stunning painting by Alma Thomas--who, by the way, is the first African American woman to have her art featured in this home.1

The “stunning painting” in question is Resurrection, a brightly colored piece which features brightly colored bands in concentric circles.2 As Mrs. Obama noted, the painting’s addition to the White House Collection made Alma Thomas the first African-American woman to have her work added to the White House Collection.

This acrylic and graphite on canvas painting, titled Resurrection, was done by Alma Thomas. The painting was unveiled as part of the White House Collection during Black History Month 2015 and is the first in this collection by an African-American woman.

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

Alma Woodsey Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia, on September 22, 1891. In 1907, Thomas moved with her family to Washington, D.C. to pursue education opportunities and escape racial violence in the "Jim Crow" South.3

In 1924, she became the first graduate of the art department at Howard University, a historically Black university (HBCU) located in Washington. She originally attended Howard to pursue a degree in costume design. However, during her first year she met a professor named James Vernon Herring who asked her to be his first student in the brand-new art department. She was nervous to make the transition, but Herring assured her, “Don’t worry, I’ll stick with you as long as you want me to.”4

After earning her degree, she went on to teach art at Shaw Junior High School in Washington, D.C. for thirty-five years from 1925 to 1960. Thomas also earned her master’s degree from Teachers College of Columbia University in 1934. She said of her teaching career, “I devoted my life to the children and they loved me.”5

She also committed herself to expanding opportunities for artists. In 1938, she organized the first art gallery in the D.C. public school system. Thomas worked with her former professor and now colleague, James V. Herring, as well as Alonzo J. Aden to create the Barnett Aden Gallery in 1943—one of the first African-American art galleries in the United States. The gallery featured artists including Edward Mitchell Bannister, Bernice Cross, and Henry Ossawa Tanner.6

During the 1950s, Thomas returned to her art studies, working with artists and professors including Robert Gates, Ben Summerford, and Jacob Kainen at American University where she became interested in abstraction and developed an emphasis on color. Kainen remembered Thomas as “an artist, not a student.”7 At the same time, the Washington Color School, a group of artists specializing in abstract shapes of pure color, emerged in Washington, D.C. Alma Thomas interacted with these younger artists as she continued to develop her own artistic style and path.8

While she had a lifelong affinity and appreciation for art, Thomas devoted more time to the studio when she reached her seventies, becoming a professional exhibiting artist in the 1950s. When asked why she took so long to establish herself as a painter she thoughtfully responded:

Who knows? I'm an artist, not an analyst . . . Maybe I would have become an artist sooner if I'd grown up in Harlem instead of Washington. You know how reserved the black community here was in the old days, how it admired successful black people. Well, my family succeeded in Georgia, right in the heart of the South, and they did better than most after we came to Washington. I was proud of them and still am. But for educated young black people there were so many expectations then, so many pressures to conform. I don't know why I never lost this need to create something original, something all my own.9

This photograph of the Family Dining Room was taken by Matthew D'Agostino in 2016, during the Barack Obama administration. During their residence in the Executive Mansion, the Obamas oversaw the 2015 refurbishing of the dining room, incorporating modern art and design into the room. Resurrection by Alma Thomas hangs on the north wall.

White House Historical Association

In 1964, Thomas suffered an arthritic attack that threatened her mobility and artistic livelihood. For a time, she feared she would be unable to continue painting.10

Despite this setback, Thomas persisted and innovated what she called her "Alma's Stripes" around 1966, after Howard University offered her a retrospective. Painting from her living room, she observed patterns represented in light and nature outside her window and organized changing light and smaller patterns into her paintings:

I decided to try to paint something different from anything I'd ever done. Different from anything I'd ever seen. I thought to myself, That must be accomplished. So I sat down right in that chair, that red chair here in my living room, and I looked at the window. And you can see exactly what I saw, right before my eyes, from where I was sitting in the chair. Why, the tree! The holly tree! I looked at the tree in the window, and that became my inspiration. There are six patterns in there right now that I can see. And every morning since then, the wind has given me new colors through the windowpanes. I got some watercolors and some crayons, and I began dabbling. And that's how it all began. The works have changed in many ways, but they are still all little dabs of paint that spread out very free. So that tree changed my whole career, my whole way of thinking.11

After her Howard University retrospective, Thomas continued to create vibrant, colorful paintings stating, “I never bothered painting the ugly things in life.” Her artwork was displayed in numerous galleries across the country. She considered 1972 the peak of her career, presenting her artwork at New York’s Whitney Museum in a solo show. That same year, her retrospective opened at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and Washington, D.C. Mayor Walton Washington designated the opening as “Alma Thomas Day.”12

Alma Thomas passed away on February 24, 1978, but her influence has continued to grow. Resurrection was one of the works she completed as an abstract artist, finishing the painting in 1966, the same year as her Howard retrospective. It is painted on a square canvas, composed of concentric circles of color. Smaller squares of color leap out from the white background. The yellow pattern along the edges appears to begin outside of the painting.

It was officially added to the White House Collection in 2014 by the White House Historical Association through the George B. Hartzog, Jr. White House Acquisition Trust. It was originally placed in the Family Dining Room and was moved to the Vermeil Room during the Trump Administration. Although Thomas is recognized as the first African-American woman to have her artwork featured in the White House Collection, it is also important to understand how Thomas viewed her own artistic identity. In an interview toward the end of her life, she was asked if she thought of herself as a Black artist. She responded:

No, I do not. I am a painter. I am an American. I've been here for at least three or four generations. When I was in the South, that was segregated. When I came to Washington, that was segregated. And New York-that was segregated. But I always thought the reason was ignorance. I thought myself superior and kept on going. Culture is sensitivity to beauty. And a cultured person is the highest stage of the human being. If everybody were cultured we would have no wars or disturbance. There would be peace in the world.13