Historic Reno: First Artwork By African-American Woman Featured In The White House

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This past Tuesday, First Lady Michelle Obama unveiled a modern makeover of the White House’s Old Family Dining Room, which until now, has been off limits to the public. This redesign marks the first major renovation project to have Mrs. Obama’s mark on the interior of the historic building, and includes the first artwork by an African-American woman to be featured in the White House.

The smaller dining room off the State Dining room has a rich and colorful history. It was established by President and Mrs. John Quincy Adams in 1825 as a place for the family to take meals. Enjoyed by 38 Presidents and their families, it was considered the “breakfast room” until 1961, when First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy moved the family’s dining room into the family’s private quarters upstairs. Since then, Presidents have used the Old Family Dining Room for special gatherings.

Using modern art and design, the First Lady has made a bold statement. While retaining many of the Kennedy-era antiques and the glittering 1780 crystal chandelier, the artworks added to the room are contemporary, including original pieces by Robert Rauschenberg, Josef Albers and Anni Albers.

But one of the most significant additions that caught our eye is the inclusion of the 1966 painting “Resurrection” by Alma Thomas (1891-1978), a renowned member of the Washington Color School. This painting is the first artwork by an African-American woman featured in the White House. The work has been donated to the permanent White House collection.

“Resurrection” by Alma Thomas

Although her early works were more in the realistic style, Alma became known for her later large, abstract paintings filled with color, shapes and patterns.

almathomasIn spite of the fact that Alma was an artist her entire life, she only began receiving recognition for her art in the the late 60s and early 70s. Her first exhibition, at her alma mater Howard University, was in 1966 at the age of 75, and in 1972 she became the first African-American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The late success that Alma received made her not only a role model for women, but for older artists as well.

This isn’t the first time that the Obamas have brought modern art into the White House. In 2009, they sought to add modern works by African-American, Asian, Hispanic and female artists to their private residence and the Oval Office. But, this is the first time a modern work of art by an African-American woman is on display for the public to see.

WYSK reached out to the White House Historic Association to get more facts and figures about women artists represented in the White House permanent collection. We will surely share any response we receive.

You can learn more about the history and evolution of design of the Old Family Dining Room here.

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