Artist of Inspiration: Alma Thomas

Alma Thomas – Artist of Inspiration

© Michael Fischer, 1976; Courtesy of National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

© Michael Fischer, 1976; Courtesy of National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

“The use of color in my paintings is of paramount importance to me. Through color I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than man’s inhumanity to man.” — Alma Thomas, 1970


This year, the Delaplaine is celebrating the life and art of Alma Thomas. Born in 1891 in Georgia, Thomas relocated with her family to Washington, DC, and graduated from Armstrong Technical School in 1911. She taught in Delaware for a half-dozen years, returning to DC in 1921 to enter Howard University. In 1924, Thomas became the first person to graduate from Howard with a degree in fine arts. Thomas taught at Shaw Junior High School in Washington, DC, for the remainder of her teaching career.

She furthered her art education while at Shaw, earning a Masters in Art Education from Columbia University in 1934, and taking classes at American University. Thomas threw herself into painting full-time following her retirement in 1960. Until her death in 1978, she created a distinct body of artwork, utilizing strong design and bold colors.

In 1966, Thomas’s first retrospective exhibit was held at Howard University. Both the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art held solo exhibits of her artwork in 1972. Her show at the Whitney marked another milestone first: the museum’s first solo exhibit by an African-American woman. September 9, 1972, was declared “Alma Thomas Day” in Washington, DC, a testament to the artist’s impact and achievements. In 2015, she became the first African-American woman to have artwork added to the White House permanent collection.

Alma Thomas’s style has made a significant impact on the world of art and popular culture. Today, her designs are instantly recognizable. Beginning in summer 2017 and continuing through winter 2019, the Delaplaine will use the artist and her artwork as inspiration for a number of educational programs and activities.



We are pleased to provide educators and organizations with free “Year of Alma Thomas” posters (color, 11″x17″), featuring images of the artist and her work, an Alma Thomas quote, and a timeline of her life and accomplishments. To receive poster(s), email or call 301-698-0656 x109.



Top: Alma Thomas working in her studio, c. 1968; Ida Jervis, photographer. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Above: The Eclipse, Smithsonian Art Museum, gift of the artist.