ALMA THOMAS (1891-1978)
ALMA THOMAS (1891-1978)
ALMA THOMAS (1891-1978)
ALMA THOMAS (1891-1978)
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A Century of Art: The Gerald Fineberg Collection
ALMA THOMAS (1891-1978)

A Fantastic Sunset

ALMA THOMAS (1891-1978)
A Fantastic Sunset
signed, titled and dated '"a Fantastic Sunset" Alma W. Thomas 70' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
48 x 48 in. (121.9 x 121.9 cm.)
Painted in 1970.
Private collection, Philadelphia
Private collection, St. Louis
Anon. sale; Christie's, New York, 13 November 2019, lot 26
Private collection, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Alma W. Thomas, exh. cat., New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1972, p. 1.
M. A. Foresta, A Life in Art: Alma Thomas, 1891-1978, Washington, D.C., 1981, p. 45 (titled Astronauts See a Fantastic Sunset).
D. C. Driskell, The Other Side of Color, San Francisco, 2001, p. 42, pl. 21 (illustrated).
Everything is Beautiful, exh. cat., Columbus Museum, 2021, pp. 24, 125, fig. 8 (installation view illustrated).
Washington, D.C., The Art Barn, First Invitational Exhibit, May 1971.
Baltimore, Morgan State College Gallery of Art, Black Matri-Images: A Retrospective Exhibition of Paintings by Laura Wheeler Waring and Paintings and Prints by Elizabeth Catlett, Lois Jones, Alma W. Thomas, December 1972-January 1973, n.p., no. 70.
Washington, D.C., Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, CONVERSATIONS: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue from the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and the Camille O. and William H. Cosby Collections, November 2014-January 2016, p. 208, pl. 120 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

Alma Thomas’s paintings are exercises in joy and rigor. Painted just before her exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York in 1972, the first solo show for an African American artist at the museum, A Fantastic Sunset recalls the poetic grandeur of the Pre-Raphaelites, as well as the chromatic subtlety of the Impressionists. Fellow artist David Driskell notes, “A Fantastic Sunset…shows the artist at her best, revising and designing the prismatic flow of colors that cross the fragile boundaries of hot jazz, poetry, and dance” (D. Driskell, quoted in V. Valentine, “Paintings by 20th Century Giants Alma Thomas, Norman Lewis, and Charles White Smashed Auction Records at Evening Sales in New York,” Culture Type, January 30, 2020).

A Fantastic Sunset was painted during a particularly important time in Thomas’s career, in which she turned her attention to pointillism. A rare example of her concentric paintings, it is a work undertaken with immense skill. All the colors of the rainbow emanate from a central point in balletic unity. The canvas is an invitation to close looking, as if we might reach the very soul of the canvas, of vision itself—like a multicolored pupil. Like our eyes, A Fantastic Sunset seems to open and close in response to light, and indeed in response to the viewer, like a living being.

She is a gifted, ebullient abstractionist…there is nothing naïve about her way with a brush.(P. Schjeldahl, “Art,” New York Times, May 14, 1972)

Within the canvas coexist multiple art historical discourses. As critic Chloe Wyma writes of Thomas’s output in the 1970s, “[Her] paintings are romantic but not mystical, emotive but not sentimental, pretty but not precious” (C. Wyma, “Alma Thomas: Critics’ Picks,” Artforum, 2016). Above all, it is clear that Thomas’s careful and evocative use of color reflects the positivity she hoped to elicit from the viewer. The artist herself notes, “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man,” (A. Thomas, quoted in A. Greenberger, “How Alma Thomas’s Radiant Paintings Plotted a New Course for Abstraction,” ArtNews, July 23, 2021).

It makes sense that Thomas’s paintings were shown in the recent rehang of the Museum of Modern Art alongside the work of Henri Matisse. Her work is also aligned with Abstract Expressionism, more specifically the D.C.-based Washington Color School. Connections to the Impressionists, like Claude Monet’s epochal Impression, Sunrise (1872) or the iconic pointillist Georges Seurat are also evident, as are dualities with the work of Futurist artists such as Giacomo Balla. Thomas pushes the representational urge of Monet or Seurat even further into abstraction, yet there is a prominent similarity in terms of their use of pattern. The present work, itself a landscape of sorts, emits sunny colors like those found in Seurat’s Paysage et personnages (La jupe rose) (1884). Above all, Thomas, like Seurat, is a theorist and painter of perception.

Thomas has taken up her place in art history alongside Seurat and other celebrated painters, and for good reason. After her boundary-breaking exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 1972, at the age of 81, her career took off. The Whitney show was reviewed on three separate occasions by the New York Times. Critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote, “She is a gifted, ebullient abstractionist…there is nothing naïve about her way with a brush” (P. Schjeldahl, “Art,” New York Times, May 14, 1972). Later that year, Thomas mounted a solo exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. After her death in 1978, she received numerous exhibitions and retrospectives, including the Tang Teaching Museum, Saratoga Springs, NY and the Studio Museum in Harlem (both 2016) and, most recently, at the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA (2021). Her work is held in a number of prestigious public collections, such as The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., the Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Thomas has influenced a generation of artists, especially within the African American and feminist communities. She changed art history with her dedication to painting, and combined a serious relationship to the medium with a desire to bring happiness to her viewers. A Fantastic Sunset is a canvas that exemplifies her centrality to any lineage of painting. Like the Impressionists before her, Thomas, in canvases like A Fantastic Sunset, has changed how we look altogether. We might now look with a more expert eye on the setting sun, watching the subtle colors beckon the cool evening. Thomas likewise ushered in the dawn, a new era of painting. A Fantastic Sunset has the depth of history itself, which, like Thomas’s oeuvre, reverberates in the present.

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