March 5, 2017


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Lot 323: Alma Thomas

Lot 323: Alma Thomas

Spring Flowers in Washington D.C.

Oil on canvas
Signed and dated lower right; signed, titled, and dated verso
Canvas: 24.875" x 24.875"; Frame: 26" x 26"
Together with letter from the artist dated October 24, 1969
Provenance: Private Collection, Pasadena, California (acquired directly from the artist, 1969); Thence by descent
Estimate: $125,000 - $175,000
Price Realized: $387,500
Inventory Id: 24306

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The work of Alma Thomas (1891–1978) has made a lasting contribution to the history of 20th century abstract painting. The significance of her artistic legacy was finally recognized in the latter stages of her career when, in 1972, she became the first African–American female artist to be granted a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Originally enrolled to study home economics at Howard University, Thomas switched her major to fine art where she became the school's first fine arts program graduate in 1924. Art historian Judith Wilson describes this as a common origin point for African–American artists at this time, whose beginnings were often rooted in craft and decorative art. However, Thomas's facility with color and composition transcended these vernacular traditions and established her as a respected figure in abstract painting.

Thomas began her career making representational paintings and worked as an arts educator for much of her life. Dedicated to keeping abreast with artistic developments, she began to experiment with dark, abstract watercolors. Her palette brightened considerably in the 1960s, informed by her study of color theory and the works of Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse, and Josef Albers. Though she is often associated with the Washington Color School, with whom she shared an interest in geometry, scale, and optical effects, Thomas’s technique and subject matter remained distinct.

The artist lived most of her life in the same house in Washington D.C., but she was continually inspired by the changing landscape of her garden, observing the patterns created by light filtering through the foliage. In an interview she said, “That became my inspiration. There are six patterns in there right now that I can see. And every morning… the wind has given me new colors through the windowpanes.” Metaphors from the natural world recur throughout her oeuvre, particularly in the 1960s when this work was produced. The title, Spring Flowers in Washington D.C., references the best–loved season in her native city, when thousands of people from neighboring regions arrive to view the cherry trees in bloom, which were gifted to the city by the mayor of Tokyo in 1912.

The painting is dominated by an organic, circular form—a common motif in Thomas’s work, which symbolized an aerial view of trees and flowers, reduced down to bright blocks of pure color; eschewing hard edges, the circle contains multiple slivers of the rainbow color spectrum, itself a potent icon. Indeed, Thomas was found to have copied down a passage by Bauhaus artist Johannes Itten in which he states, “The rainbow is accounted a symbol of peace.” Each ring is painted in Thomas’s characteristic blocky segments, through which glimpses of the background can be seen. The artist’s deliberate mark-making here denotes a transition from the watercolor and gouache washes which dominated her earlier body of work. Humming with energy, Spring Flowers in Washington D.C. captures the modulation of bright light by the natural world.

The work was a major investment for the original owner, which he purchased directly from the artist while he was studying medicine. It is sold with a letter from the artist, dated October 24, 1969, in which she wrote, “I hope you will love the painting. So many of my friends want to buy it. I am painting more and more.”

Wilson, Judith. Foreword. Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings. San Francisco: Pomegranate, 1998. 8. Print.
Munro, Eleanor. Originals: American Women Artists. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979. 194. Print.
Yanari, Sachi. Introduction. Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings. San Francisco: Pomegranate, 1998. 14. Print.