Alma Thomas
American, 1891–1978
Starry Night and the Astronauts

Acrylic on canvas
152.4 x 134.6 cm (60 x 53 in.)
Gift of Mary P. Hines in memory of her mother, Frances W. Pick, 1994.36

Starry Night with Astronauts is the final work in Space Series, a group of abstractions by Georgia-born Alma Thomas, who pursued a full-time career as an artist during the 1960s after retiring from teaching art in Washington, D.C. Thomas began her Space Series in 1969, in response to the Apollo missions’ space explorations and moon landings. This work was inspired by the 1889 painting The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890).

Like the other works in Thomas’s series, this composition contains no obvious references to an actual space expedition. Instead, the artist relied on abstract elements to suggest her theme. To evoke the night sky, she filled the large canvas with vertical strokes of blue, ranging in tone from sky blue to indigo. In the upper right-hand corner, she added a small kaleidoscope of red, orange, and yellow to suggest Apollo 10, the spaceship that preceded the vessel used in the first moon landing (Apollo 11). The astronauts nicknamed Apollo 10 "Snoopy," after the dog in Charles Schulz’s comic strip "Peanuts."

The colorful bars in the painting seem translucent, recalling the small pieces of broken glass or bits of ceramic used in a mosaic. Visible traces of the unpainted canvas and flecks of white paint create the sensation of flickering light. The entire surface appears to glisten, suggesting the mysterious beauty of outer space and inspiring a sense of wonder reminiscent of what many felt in the 1960s and 1970s at the time of the first space flights.