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Alma Thomas’ “Watusi” Gets the White House Kibosh

Back in October the White House released a list of 45 artworks on loan to the Obamas from Washington museums. The artists selected vary in age, race, gender and geographical roots, reflecting the administration’s continued celebration of diversity. One particular painting, Watusi (Hard Edge), by African-American woman Alma Thomas (1891-1978) and on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum, caused quite the controversy. The 1963 painting, it turns out, is extremely similar to a 1953 piece entitled L’Escargot by Matisse, a maestro whom Thomas openly proclaimed an inspiration to her evolution as a painter.

Now it turns out that the painting, which was to be mounted in Michelle Obama’s East Wing office, will no longer be displayed. “The reason why it was moved was because it didn’t fit the space right,” announced Semonti Stephens, the First Lady’s deputy press secretary.

Alma Thomas, Watusi (Hard Edge), 1963 Henri Matisse, The Snail, 1953
Left: Alma Thomas, Watusi (Hard Edge), 1963; Right: Henri Matisse, The Snail, 1953

Essentially, the shapes are the same, however Thomas chose a duller color palette and turned the painting on its side. She is not the first artist to create a study of an admired piece. Unfortunately, the announcement quickly morphed into a “situation” thanks to hordes of opinionated bloggers who seized the moment to criticize the Obama’s taste in art. “American art? I don’t think so!” railed one blogger back when the painting was merely a suggestion.

Thomas has been making history for decades. She was the first woman to graduate from Howard University’s fine arts department and the first to receive a MFA from Columbia University, as well. After spending 35 years teaching art to high schoolers, the mosaic-prone painter retired in 1960 and resumed her personal career as an artist. In 1972 she became the first African-American woman to have her own show at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Another painting by Thomas, Sky Light, hangs in the first family’s private quarters.

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