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Hydrangeas Spring Song
Hydrangeas Spring Song, 1976
Alma Thomas, American
Acrylic on canvas
78 x 48 inches (198.1 x 121.9 cm)
125th Anniversary Acquisition. Purchased with funds contributed by Mr. and Mrs. Julius Rosenwald II in honor of René and Sarah Carr d'Harnoncourt, The Judith Rothschild Foundation, and with other funds being raised in honor of the 125th Anniversary of the Museum and in celebration of African American art, 2002
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Hydrangeas Spring Song by Alma Thomas

My real belief is in my art, in beauty. I say everyone on earth should take note of the spring of the year coming back every year, blooming and gorgeous. —Alma Thomas

About This Painting

What colors do you see in this painting? Hydrangeas Spring Song consists entirely of marks made with blue acrylic paint on a white canvas. Curvy shapes, rectangles, and letters spill and scatter over the large surface (over six feet tall and four feet wide), never touching. A joyous sense of light, air, and music infuses this mysterious composition, recalling mosaics, hieroglyphs, calligraphy, and alphabet soup. What could these brushstrokes mean? What do they have to do with hydrangeas, large flowers that are typically blue or white?

About This Artist

Alma Thomas taught art at Shaw Junior High School in Washington, D.C., for thirty-six years. When she retired, she devoted herself full-time to painting. Up to that point, she made realistic still-life paintings in her spare moments. However, with time to sit by her window, the patterns and colors created by the sun and wind on a tree outside caused her to see things differently: “That tree changed my whole career, my whole way of thinking.” Using watercolors and crayons, she began making dabs of color, spreading them out freely. These color sketches became the basis for her large, abstract canvases done in acrylic paint.

Thomas spent her childhood in the Deep South, moving to Washington, D.C., when she was in high school. Her ambition was to become an architect or sculptor but instead she became a teacher. After teaching kindergarten, she studied at Howard University, and, in 1924, became the first graduate of its art education program.

Although Alma Thomas started painting full-time and became a successful artist during her retirement years, she was engaged in the creative process and the art world throughout her life. As a child she “was always building something”*—forming cups and plates with clay from the brook near her house. Following the example of her mother, a dress designer, Thomas went to Howard University to study costume design. She was invited to study art instead and, through her professors, she became intrigued with abstract art.

During the years Thomas spent teaching, she actively pursued her interest in abstract art, becoming a member of an informal group of painters in Washington, D.C. During the 1930s, while studying for a master’s degree at Columbia University in New York, she saw the world of American abstract artists like Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, and Arthur Dove. In the 1940s, she was friendly with the directors of a gallery in Washington, D.C., that showed abstract art by Morris Louis and Gene Davis. In the 1950s, Thomas took courses in art and European art history at American University.

Throughout her career, Thomas was a social activist, often organizing art classes for children in poor neighborhoods. She also had exhibitions at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the National Museum of American Art. In 1971, Alma Thomas became the first African American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

I’ve never bothered painting the ugly things in life. People struggling, having difficulty. . . . No. I wanted something beautiful that you could sit down and look at. —Alma Thomas**

* Eleanor C. Munro, Originals: American Women Artists (Boulder, CO: Da Capo Press, 2000), 197.
** Ibid, 192

For more information, please contact The Division of Education by phone at (215) 684-7580, by fax at (215) 236-4063, or by e-mail at .

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