Masters on the Market: Alma Thomas

James Ardis
Published on
Photograph of Alma Thomas. Image from the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution.
Photograph of Alma Thomas. Image from the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution.

In 1960, after nearly 40 years as an art teacher, Alma Thomas retired to focus on her own work. She’d achieved some success as an artist before then. However, it was during these later years that she began her experiments with color and abstraction that collectors know her for today. 

Despite the gender and racial barriers she faced, along with a worsening case of arthritis, Alma Thomas and her colorful artworks earned recognition across the United States. In 1972, for example, she became the first Black American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. “Through color I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness in my painting rather than on man’s inhumanity to man,” said Alma Thomas of her work. 

Alma’s Flower Garden, a painting the artist made of her Washington D.C. garden, recently sold for a record-breaking USD 2.8 million. Some experts, however, were upset by this development. The sale was part of the Greenville County Museum of Art’s controversial deaccessioning process, and the buyer’s identity is unknown. It’s now unclear when (or if) the painting will be back in public view. 

Who was Alma Thomas? And what does this recent sale mean for her artworks going forward? Auction Daily takes a closer look.

An untitled watercolor by Alma Thomas. Photo from Treadway.
An untitled watercolor by Alma Thomas. Photo from Treadway.

Alma Thomas’ Life and Work

Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1891. Her love of nature and its wide spectrum of colors began with the view from her home in Columbus. Her family eventually moved to Washington D.C., and Thomas grew up to become the first graduate of Howard University’s art department in 1924.

Alma Thomas became a beloved art teacher for many decades and was also pivotal in establishing the first unsegregated art gallery in Washington D.C., Barnett-Aden Gallery. In the 1940s, she became a part of The Little Paris Group, a community of Black artists in the capital organized by Loïs Mailou Jones. The following decade, Thomas began learning from and aligning herself with the Washington Color School.

A Fantastic Sunset by Alma Thomas. Photo from Christie’s.
A Fantastic Sunset by Alma Thomas. Photo from Christie’s.

Nature inspired many of Thomas’ studies of color. A Fantastic Sunset, for example, uses cooler blues and purples on the fringes of the painting to emphasize the intense red of the setting sun. The painting achieved $2.65 million with Christie’s in 2019, an auction record for Alma Thomas.

Thomas was also aware of the vast technological advances she witnessed in her lifetime. While nature would always be a source of inspiration for her, so too would be the moon landing and space explorations. “[T]hrough the medium of color television all can actually see and experience the thrill of these adventures,” said Alma Thomas in 1972. She began her Snoopy series around this time, named after the lunar module used on Apollo 10. Among these works was Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset.

Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset by Alma Thomas. Photo from The Studio Museum of Harlem.
Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset by Alma Thomas. Photo from The Studio Museum of Harlem.

“Alma’s Flower Garden” and Deaccessioning Controversy

Alma Thomas continued to live in the Washington D.C. house that her father purchased in 1907 until she died in 1978. Alma’s Flower Garden is her depiction of the flowers she grew on the property. Experts like Jonathan Walz say the source material for Alma’s Flower Garden is unusually grounded and personal to Thomas, especially compared to her other works. Walz also notes that Thomas completed the piece during a brief “transitional, experimental period” in the late 1960s.

The painting was previously held by the Greenville County Museum of Art, located in Greenville, South Carolina. The museum’s leadership voted unanimously to deaccession the artwork last year. The representative of an anonymous buyer offered to purchase Alma’s Flower Garden for $2.8 million, a record-breaking total. No one, including those at the Greenville County Museum of Art, is aware of the buyer’s identity, which was a condition of the purchase.

Alma’s Flower Garden by Alma Thomas. Photo from the Greenville County Museum of Art.
Alma’s Flower Garden by Alma Thomas. Photo from the Greenville County Museum of Art.

Organizers of an upcoming traveling exhibit, “Alma W. Thomas: Everything is Beautiful,” were planning to borrow the piece to tell the artist’s life story. Jonathan Walz, one of the exhibit’s curators, said they received no advanced notice about the sale.

Beyond the exhibit, Walz worries about the long-term implications of Alma’s Flower Garden leaving the public view. “It’s particularly important that Alma Thomas’ work, as the work of an African-American artist, be available for the public to see,” said Walz. “If it has gone into a private collection, that’s devastating.”

An untitled abstract work by Alma Thomas. Photo from the Black Art Auction.
An untitled abstract work by Alma Thomas. Photo from the Black Art Auction.

Deaccessioning has come under increased scrutiny during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of lockdowns and other pandemic-related obstacles, museums in the United States are temporarily allowed to use the profits from deaccessioned works towards operational costs. Some critics say museums are taking an aggressive approach to deaccessioning and damaging their institutions’ long-term viability. However, the Greenville County Museum of Art notes that it only used the funds raised by selling Alma’s Flower Garden to acquire new works. That included another Alma Thomas piece, as well as work by Jamie Wyeth, Hale Woodruff, and others. 

Time will tell if the record-high purchase of Alma’s Flower Garden will change the market for Thomas’ paintings. The artist’s work usually comes to auction several times a year. Among the recent stand-out prices for Thomas’ paintings was an untitled abstract piece, which sold for $130,000 with Black Art Auction in May of 2020.

Want to read more about artists and their auction histories? Auction Daily recently explored the career of Iraqi artist Dia Azzawi.