Mildred Jean Thompson’s paintings are often characterized by their complex formal compositions, bright color palettes, and energetic markings. Much of her visual language is drawn from the fields of science and sound, and is replete with references to quantum physics, cosmology, theosophy, and jazz. Her works aim to pictorialize what is unseen by the naked eye—microscopic particles, sound vibrations, or energy. Although she is considered a major figure in twentieth-century American abstraction, the majority of Thompson’s career was spent in self-exile in Germany due to the racial and gender discrimination she confronted as a black woman in the United States.

Born in Jacksonville, Florida, Thompson was the daughter of Ruth Vaught Thompson, an elementary school teacher, and Dr. E. W. Thompson, a pharmacist. Throughout her early education, she was encouraged by her parents and teachers to pursue art and would often decorate her school’s blackboards with seasonal motifs. While attending Stanton High School, she explored darkroom photography and mechanical drawing, and performed in the school’s band. With an eye towards a profession in the arts, Thompson enrolled at Howard University in Washington, DC, in 1953, and subsequently declared a major in painting and a minor in art history. Dubious about the practicality of a visual arts diploma, her father insisted that she add a second minor in art education. At Howard, Thompson studied under the revered artist and scholar James Porter, a pioneer in the field of African American art history. Porter’s guidance shaped Thompson’s first experiments with abstraction—an investigation she would resume while living and working in Paris and Georgia in the 1980s. As an undergraduate, Thompson was awarded a scholarship to attend the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, an innovative contemporary arts enclave located in rural Maine.

After graduating from Howard in 1957 with degrees in painting, art history, and art education, Thompson applied, unsuccessfully, for a Fulbright fellowship in hopes of study and travel abroad. Determined to fund her own way, she taught a summer course in ceramics at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, where art department chair Samella Lewis became a key mentor. In the decades that followed, Thompson received various grants to study in New York, Italy, Germany, and Nigeria, which afforded her opportunities to travel and exhibit throughout Europe during the 1960s and 1970s. She studied with the American landscape painter Reuben Tam and sculptor William King at the Brooklyn Museum School, and later expanded her painting and printmaking skills at the Hochschule für bildende Künst with Emil Schumacher and Paul Wunderlich.

Thompson eventually returned to the American South in 1974 when offered a residency at her alma mater. During her teaching tenure at Howard, Thompson received criticism from peers, who chastised her for not painting in a figurative style or referencing African subject matter, and for having trained in Europe with white artists. In reflecting on this period, Thompson concluded: “I had spent long years trying to find out who I am and what my influences were and where they come from. It was perhaps because I had lived and studied with ‘whitey’ that I had learned to appreciate my Blackness.”

When the Atlanta-based magazine Art Papers appointed her an associate editor in 1985, Thompson settled in the city and started teaching at two historically black colleges, Morehouse College and Spelman, and at all-female Agnes Scott College. Three years later, she began her expansive Magnetic Fields series, working from a spacious studio in the Old Fourth Ward. In a 1992 artist statement, Thompson wrote: “For the first time . . . I feel that I am beginning to settle in Atlanta. . . . I work in the studio every day and find my work challenging, as well as meaningful.”

Thompson’s work is held by prestigious public collections in the United States, including the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and is also represented in important international museum holdings.