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The African-American woman artist who beat all odds in the 20th century

September 22, On This Day


She was born on September 22, 1891 — today, 130 years later, Alma Woodsey Thomas is recognized as a major American painter of the 20th century, beating all odds as an African-American female artist, despite the segregation and prejudice of her time. She is alternatively classified by some as an Expressionist, and is best known for “exuberant”, colorful and abstract paintings created after her retirement from a 35-year career teaching art at Washington’s Shaw Junior High School. Her trajectory is defined not just by her own art, but also the fact that she continually created opportunities for emerging artistic voices in the Black American community.

During the 1950s her style evolved in several major shifts, from figurative painting to cubism and then to abstract expressionism, with \”monumental,\” dark paintings largely in blue and brown tones, to beginning to embrace the bright colors that she would later use in her signature style.

Thomas would not become a full-time, professional artist until she was 68 or 69 years old, in 1960, when she retired from teaching. She worked out of the kitchen in her house, creating works like Watusi (Hard Edge) (1963), a manipulation of the Henri Matisse cutout The Snail, in which Thomas shifted shapes around and changed the colors that Matisse used, and named it after a Chubby Checker song.

Thomas\’ style has qualities similar to West African paintings as well as Byzantine mosaics.

She told the New York Times in 1977 that she was “married to her art”.

She passed away on February 24, 1978. Her reputation has continued to grow since her death — in 2019, her A Fantastic Sunset (1970) sold at Christie’s for $2.6 million.

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