By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 5, 2009
A painting by the artist Alma W. Thomas, which had been selected to go on Michelle Obama's wall in her East Wing office, will no longer be mounted.
"The reason why it was moved was because it didn't fit the space right," Semonti Stephens, the first lady's deputy press secretary, said of "Watusi (Hard Edge)," which had been borrowed from the Hirshhorn Museum.
Stephens noted that the Obamas still "have a piece of [Thomas's] work in the residence. So they appreciate the artist's work." A Thomas artwork titled "Sky Light," also on loan from the Hirshhorn, hangs in the family's private quarters.
Some conservative Web sites, including http://Freerepublic.com, have accused Thomas of plagiarizing the work "The Snail" by the French artist Henri Matisse. The White House denied that it was removing Thomas's piece because of those accusations.
Stephens's explanation makes sense because it is inconceivable that the White House's art experts would imagine Thomas's painting was fraudulent or a copy. From the time of its birth, it would have been clear that Thomas's work was an homage; "The Snail" was extraordinarily famous when Thomas painted "Watusi."
Thomas's painting was first exhibited in the '60s. At that time, you could no more plagiarize a Matisse collage such as "The Snail" than you could pass off the "Mona Lisa" as your own.
Elaborations on earlier artists' work, even full appropriation, have been common practice in art for hundreds of years. Artists long learned their craft by copying the works of older masters; even among high artists, it was standard.
It could indeed be that the painting just doesn't fit. That happens all the time. And the first lady might consider this advice: Find a nice big wall and hang the Thomas piece once again, just to prove that she knows more about how art works than some of her critics do.
Robin Givhan and Timothy R. Smith contributed to this article.