The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) recently acquired Forsythia and Pussy Willows Begin Spring (1970), a painting by African American artist Alma Thomas (1891–1978).
“We are delighted that Forsythia and Pussy Willows Begin Spring has joined VMFA’s Modern and Contemporary art holdings,” said Alex Nyerges, VMFA’s Director and CEO. “Alma Thomas was a major contributor to 20th-century art. Her nature-based paintings significantly influenced artists who came after her, and her vibrantly colored canvases resonate with viewers today.”
Born in Columbus, Georgia, during the Jim Crow Era, Alma Woodsey Thomas and her family moved to Washington D.C., where more educational and economic opportunities were available for African Americans. By 1921, Thomas enrolled in art instruction courses at Howard University and, by 1924, became the program's first graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in fine arts. After receiving her Master of Arts degree in education from Columbia University in the 1930s, Thomas taught at Shaw Junior High School in Washington D.C. for 35 years before retiring in 1960 and devoting herself to painting full time.
Thomas had earlier eschewed abstract art in favor of figurative and still life painting. By the 1960s however, when studying at American University in Washington D.C., she admired and responded to the abstract paintings created by Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and other contemporaries in the Washington Color School. This loosely affiliated group of painters applied luminous colorful hues by staining and soaking their raw canvases with thinned oil or acrylic paint.
In 1972, Thomas became the first African American woman artist to have a solo exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. She was also the first African American woman artist to have her work acquired and displayed in the White House after former First Lady Michelle Obama selected two paintings, Watusi (Hard Edge) and Sky Light, installed on loan to the White House in 2009, before the landmark acquisition in 2015 of Thomas’s 1966 painting Resurrection. Thomas’s works are featured in many museum collections including the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art. Her work is the subject of the current nationally touring retrospective entitled Alma Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful.
“Acquiring a painting by Alma Thomas has long been a priority for the museum. We patiently waited for an iconic work and are delighted to bring this vibrant visual echo of Thomas’ garden into our collection,” said Valerie Cassel Oliver, VMFA’s Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. “Forsythia and Pussy Willows Begin Spring will complement VMFA’s existing holdings of work by African American and women artists, artists of the Washington Color School, as well as the canon’s celebrated masters of abstraction Norman Lewis, Henri Matisse and Wassily Kandinsky, whom Thomas noted as significant influences.”
The painting, from Thomas’s Earth series, is a classic example of the unique painting style she developed after encountering the work of the Washington Color School. Her technique of placing precise dabs of vibrant color in a succession of vertical, hyphenated stripes conveys the beauty of a colorful flower garden. The palette of warm browns, fresh greens, bright blues and sunny yellows evokes the blooming flowers, petals, grass, tree trunks and clear skies the artist could see from her bay window, which overlooked the garden at her home at 1530 Fifteenth Street in Washington D.C.
“Alma Thomas applied her radiant colors in a series of vertical, staccato brushstrokes in Forsythia and Pussy Willows Begin Spring to capture, in abstract terms, the beauty and rhythms of the natural world, including the flowers in her garden,” said Dr. Michael Taylor, VMFA’s Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Art and Education. “The white gesso ground that breaks up both the lines and bold touches of color not only helps to organize the composition’s rendering of the diverse shapes and colors of the natural environment, but also illuminates the scene and suggests sunlight peeking through the flowers and leaves. We believe that this joyful painting will be a landmark purchase for VMFA and an iconic work for our visitors to see and enjoy.”
For more information about the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the museum’s collections, visit www.VMFA.museum.