Work by a Woman Artist

Alma Thomas’s Red Azaleas Jubilee

By Patricia Hickson, Emily Hall Tremaine Curator of Contemporary Art

Alma Thomas (American, 1891-1978), Red Azaleas Jubilee, 1976. Acrylic on canvas. 72×52 inches. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1990.29

Made in the last years of Thomas’s life, Red Azaleas Jubilee celebrates the artist’s lifelong interest in nature and color. Her highly personal style expands aspects of Abstract Expressionist practice, in combination with her local Washington Color School tradition. However, she remained independent from these movements in style, technique, and subject matter. She experimented with color, line, pattern, and abstraction throughout her artistic career, to which she committed herself exclusively in her sixties after retiring from arts education. 

Unlike earlier multicolor canvases, after 1972, works like Red Azaleas Jubilee feature a reduced palette of a single color—in this case, red—on a white ground. The loosely painted but meticulously constructed red shapes have been partially overpainted with the addition of white paint. Thomas stated, “I now paint blocks that are loser, floating hither and yonder, some straight, others curved in monochromatic color on a single-color background or several color background, making the canvas an integral part of the picture.”[1] The compact forms on the left side of the canvas give way to more airy spacing on the right in an abstract representation of patterns created by light shining through flowers and foliage. Finding inspiration outside her living-room window, she also frequented Washington DC’s renowned gardens and arboretums. The “jubilee” of the title is captured in the sense of movement as the joyful abstract forms seem to dance across the canvas.      

Born in 1891 and living until 1976, Thomas’s long life spanned years of sweeping social, political, cultural, and technological change: from the Great Depression and world wars to the civil rights movement and feminism. Thomas eschewed such content in her work. Thomas became the first graduate of Howard University’s art department in 1924, a program established three years prior. In 1972 at the age of 81, she became the first Black woman artist featured in a single-person exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The National Museum of American Art (now Smithsonian American Art Museum) presented her retrospective in 1981. Currently, a traveling exhibition titled Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful is on view at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC., with presentations at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia; the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, Tennessee; the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Ohio.

[1] Alma Thomas, quoted in Joshua Taylor, Alma W. Thomas: Paintings, (New York: Martha Jackson Gallery, 1973), unpaginated.