Crite, Allan Rohan 1910–
Allan Rohan Crite 1910–
Allan Rohan Crite’s mother encouraged her son to draw to keep him busy while she wrote poetry. Her support led Crite to become arguably the most important African-American artist in his native New England. His work explored Negro spirituals and religious themes, and documented the African-American experience. Crite remained in Boston, where he grew up, and graduated from Harvard, wrote several books, and received numerous honorary degrees. He and his wife established a museum of his countless pencil sketches, lithographs, brush-and-ink drawings, and oil paintings, but pieces of Crite’s work were also held by some of the nation’s most prestigious museums. However, despite his impressive body of work, Crite was nearly destitute by his nineties. Several academics, curators, and artists sang Crite’s praises, but he was generally unknown.
Crite was born in Plainfield, New Jersey on March 20, 1910, the only child of Oscar William Crite, a medical student who later became an electrical engineer, and Annamae Crite, a homemaker and unpublished poet. During World War I, while Crite was still a child, the family moved to Boston’s modest, middle-class South Side neighborhood. Upon their arrival in Boston, Annamae Crite began taking humanities classes at Harvard University Extension School, and encouraged her son to sketch and draw, keeping him occupied while she wrote poetry.
Because he was a quiet child, several of Crite’s teachers wanted to place him in a “special class for people who were not right in the head,” he recalled in an interview found at Boston.com. But when one of Crite’s school teachers told Annamae Crite that she thought Crite had artistic talent, Annamae listened. She enrolled Crite in Charles Herbert Woodbury’s Children’s Art Center. After graduating from Boston English High School in 1929, Crite attended the School of the Museum of Fine Arts on scholarship, where he studied for six years. Also in 1929, as Crite was becoming known as an artist, his father was injured in an accident at work. Until his father died, eight years later, Crite helped his mother care for him.
In the 1930s, Crite spent a year as a Works Projects Administration artist, and briefly was a member of the Society of Independent Artists, a Boston collective. In 1940, he took a job as a draftsman for the Boston Ship Yard, a job he kept for 30 years. He illustrated ships and machines built at the yard. He later attended Boston University, the Massachusetts College of Art, and Harvard, where an academic prize was named for him. He also worked part-time in Harvard’s library for 20 years.
Crite separated his artwork into three distinct categories: His Negro spirituals illustrations, his religious-themed work, and his neighborhood paintings. With his illustrations of Negro spirituals, Crite, whose grandfather was a slave, sought to tell the story and meaning of the songs, which he felt was being lost. Crite also published two books of pen-and-ink drawings that
At a Glance…
Born Allan Rohan Crite in Plainfield, NJ, March 20, 1910, the son of Oscar William Crite, an electrical engineer, and Annamae Crite, a homemaker and unpublished poet; married Jackie Cox, 1993, Educa-lion; Boston Museum School of Fine Arts, 1929-36; Painter’s Workshop, Fogg Art Museum, 1940s; Harvard University, AB, 1968.
Career: Artist-historian, Semitic Museum, Harvard University; engineer, draftsman, and illustrator, Naval Shipyard, Boston, 1940-1970; muralist, Rambusch Decorating Co., 1949-50; librarian, Grossman Library, Harvard University, 1974-89; teacher and lecturer, Oberlin η College, 1958; Regis College, 1958, Roxbury Community College, 1977-78; Isabell Stewart Gardner Museum, 1994, among others; published works: author, Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?, Harvard University Press, 1944; Three Spirituals from Earth to Heaven, Harvard University Press, 1948; Rediscovery of Cultural Heritage of the United States, (paper), Library of the Boston Athenaeum, 1968; illustrator, Book of Revelation, Limited Edition Book Club, 1994; The Lord’s Prayer, an Interpretation, The Seabury Press, Inc., 1954; Blacks Who Died for Jesus, a history book by Mark Hyman, Winston-Derek Publishing Inc., 1983.
Awards: 350th Annual Harvard University Medal, Harvard University, 1986; Men of Vision Award, Museum of African-American History, 1992; Stain Glass Window, Christ Church, 1994; certificate of appreciation for Life Contributions to Visual Art, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, 1994; honorary doctorates received from Suffolk University, Emmanuel College, Massachusetts College of Art, among others.
Addresses: Dealer —J. Cox & Associates, PO Box 2414, Boston, MA, 02208. Museum —410 Columbus Ave., Boston, MA, 02116-5910.
explored the Negro spiritual, Were You There When They Crucified My Lord? and Three Spirituals from Earth to Heaven.
A substantial portion of Crite’s work was devoted to exploring the non-European aspects of the Bible, with its African, Asian, and Middle-Eastern references. He painted triptychs and altars, and designed and painted vestments and banners for St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A highly detailed altar he built in 1940 was used in both Episcopalian and Roman Catholic services, and featured a black Christ child and multinational, multi-racial angels and onlookers. In the fifties and sixties, Crite lectured on religious art at seminaries around the United States and in Europe.
As a self-described “artist reporter,” in his “neighborhood paintings,” as he called them in Artsfirst online, Crite captured images of “ordinary Black people, living ordinary lives” in paintings of people he knew in street scenes. One of his best-known paintings, Harriet and Leon, featured a black couple walking past the curious stares of two children in an unspecified neighborhood. According to Crite, Harriet and Leon, painted in 1941, was meant to show a black man and woman, not as jazz musicians or sharecroppers, but as dignified, ordinary people. “Allan had the courage to celebrate art about black people when it wasn’t celebrated,” artist Paul Goodnight told the Boston Globe.
In 1968 Crite earned a bachelor’s degree from the Harvard Extension School. Crite and his mother, whom he continued to live with and care for, moved from Crite’s childhood home into a 150-year-old town-house on Columbus Avenue, just seven blocks away, in 1971. She died six years later, but Crite remained in the old house. During the eighties, Crite accumulated honorary doctorates from Suffolk University, Emmanuel College, and Massachusetts College of Art. In 1986 a parcel of land at a corner near his house was named for him, and Harvard honored him with its 350th anniversary medal.
Also in the late eighties, Crite helped found The Boston Collective with several other local artists. Crite was an intriguing character in the group, known to drop French or Spanish words into conversation. He also was known for being interested in discussing a variety of topics, ranging from black migration and the geography of the Bible, to current news or political topics like abortion. Among his fellow artists, Crite was known as the group’s “surrogate father,” according to the Boston Globe.
A Massachusetts state representative suggested to Crite that he open a museum for his work. Crite, who was never interested in any type of self promotion, sat on the idea. It wasn’t until he met his wife, the former Jackie Cox, that the museum began to take shape. Cox, an art consultant half his age whom he married in 1993, was bent on preserving Crite’s work. She converted his cluttered townhouse into the Crite House Museum, a museum of Crite’s life and art, where he continued to live. The walls of the aging Victorian house were covered with his artwork, and that of artists he had inspired. “This house tells the story of my life,”he was quoted as saying by Boston.com. “Each of its four stories is a chapter and a verse,” he continued.
The museum also represented the wide variety of media Crite worked with. In it, there hangs countless pencil sketches, lithographs, brush-and-ink drawings, and oil paintings. Hand-crafted brass panels once were part of a Cambridge monastery, but were returned to their creator, and they were kept in the museum, too.
Crite’s work also was held by such museums as New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Washington’s Phillips Collection, Corcoran Gallery, National Cathedral and Smithsonian Institute, Chicago’s Art Institute, Boston’s Athenaeum, the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, and the Museum of Fine Arts. Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, deputy chief curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art, told the Christian Science Monitor that Crite’s works “are immensely popular within the best public collection of African-American art.” But she added they also transcend the African-American genre with their broad appeal.
Though there were a select number of academics, artists, and curators who would attest to Crite’s importance as an artist, his significance largely eluded the general public. When asked, a woman sitting in Allan Rohan Crite Square, within 200 yards of his home, had no idea who he was. “Allan’s still undiscovered; he’s still practically an unknown artist,” Michael Wentworth, curator of paintings and sculpture at the Boston Athenaeum, which has 18 of Crite’s paintings, including Harriet and Leon, said in the Boston Globe. “Someday, he will assume a tremendously important position in the whole context of American painting and black artists in the country,” he added.
One of the factors that led to Crite’s relative obscurity was his reluctance to self-promote. “He’s always been modest, self-effacing, not self-promotional,” Paul Goodnight told the Boston Globe. “He’s generous, perhaps to a fault. That’s just his character,” he explained further. Crite admitted he had no interest in self-promotion. “That’s not my business. My business is to do my work to the best of my ability,” he agreed in the Globe. “If it has an impact, that’s nice. I can’t do my work worrying about what other people are going to think about it,” he continued.
Another hindrance was the scattering of Crite’s work among so many different sources. According to Michael Shinagel, dean of continuing education at the Harvard Extension School, because so many museums and private collections have examples of his work that no one collection is large enough to represent Crite’s significance. No one held “that critical mass where people can say: This is an important person,’” he said in the Boston Globe. Jackie Cox-Crite headed the Allan Rohan Crite Research Institute, geared toward tracking down and cataloging the artist’s works. Crite also disliked exhibiting his work, which was another drawback. “He would have been one of the most important black artists of his time,” Michael Wentworth professed in the Boston Globe, “but he’s always been indifferent to exhibiting or putting himself forward.”
The Crite House Museum was in need of $1 million for repairs, and in danger of being sold. Crite’s modest pension from his naval work, infrequent lectures, and occasional artwork sales didn’t cover all the bills—his utilities often went overdue, and his phone service was occasionally turned off. Jackie Cox-Crite worked tirelessly on massive fundraising efforts.
Crite recognized the work Cox-Crite was doing to raise money and awareness about his work—the fundraising, research, cataloging, and running the museum, in addition to being his dutiful chauffeur, nurse, secretary, spokeswoman, estate planner, and wife. And though he acknowledge the importance of it, he wasn’t interested in being the one to do it. “Somebody, I guess, has to look after the work,” he mused in the Boston Globe. “If I don’t do anything, what’s going to happen to it? ’Course, in a certain way, I don’t care, because I’ll be dead,” he added.
In his ninth decade, Crite moved slowly up and down the stairs of his four-story home. He hadn’t done an oil painting in 25 years, but had accumulated thousands of stacks of sketches and pen-and-ink drawings. At 90, he was at work on a massive project—a pictoral chronology of the African-American experience and migration to Asian countries, Latin America, and the United States. He carefully studied history, architecture, clothing, and customs of various cultures around the world for the series. “I’ve only done one piece of work in my life,” he said in the Globe. “I regard everything I’ve done since age six as part of one work. And I’ll stop working on it only when I die,” he concluded.
Who’s Who in American Art 1999-2000, Marquis Who’s Who, 1999.
Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, July 16, 2000.
Christian Science Monitor, http://www.csmonitor.com/durable/1997/10/22/home/home.2.html
Harvard Extension School Alumni Bulletin, http://www.dce.harvard.edu/pubs/alum/2000/03.html
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