BAIA BITS: Allan Rohan Crite

BAIA BITS

Little Moments Where Knowledge Meets Art

My intention in the neighborhood paintings and some drawings was to show aspects of life in the city with special reference to the use of the terminology “black” people and to present them in an ordinary light, persons enjoying the usual pleasures of life with its mixtures of both sorrow and joys… I was an artist-reporter, recording what I saw.” –Allan Crite, The Artist Craftsman’s Work on the Church, Commentary on the 1950s, Smithsonian Institution

 

Allan Rohan Crite, Sunlight and Shadow, 1941, oil on board, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase, 1977.45

 

​On Columbus Avenue in Boston, at the intersection of West Canton and Appleton Streets, there is a location known as Crite Square that honors acclaimed artist and South End resident, Allan Rohan Crite. The talented Crite was a prominent artist well-known for his depictions of his local African American community during the 1930s.

Born in Plainfield, New Jersey but raised in Boston, Crite’s poet mother and physician father—his dad was also one of the first Black people to earn an engineering license—encouraged their son to draw. After displaying substantial talent as a child, Crite later attended Boston University, the Massachusetts School of Art, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School, later earning a Bachelor of Arts degree at the Harvard University Extension School.

During the 1930s, the devout Episcopalian focused his art on modern interpretations of religious themes, mostly in pen and ink and lithography. Upon increasing acclaim, Crite’s work was first shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1936. He began a series of drawings in 1937 depicting three spirituals, ultimately published by Harvard University in 1948 and entitled Three Spirituals From Earth to Heaven. Along with religious themes, Crite spent the 1930s and 40s creating a series of ​“neighborhood paintings” inspired by the nearby African American Roxbury district. While exhibiting works of art aimed at authentically depicting his community—contrary to the mostly jazz or sharecropping imagery projected by the mainstream or dominant narrative—Crite worked as an illustrator in the Planning Department of the Boston Naval Shipyards through the Federal Arts Project, a position he would hold for over three decades.

 

Allan Rohan Crite, School’s Out, 1936, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from General Services Administration, 1971.447.18

 

In the 1950s, Crite lectured regularly on liturgical art and published several theological books aimed at centralizing the Black figure. “I’ve only done one piece of work in my whole life and I am still at it,” he once offered. “I wanted to paint people of color as normal humans. I tell the story of man through the black figure.”

Later in life, Crite employed a “magical-realism’ in his paintings, using bright colors and religious themes to offer messages of optimism and redemption.

Allan Rohan Crite met his maker on September 6, 2007 at the age of 97 in his beloved Boston. He left behind a prolific body of work that remains in such prominent locations as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and The Boston Athenaeum, the latter touting the largest public collection of his paintings and watercolors.

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