The Spirit of the Spiritual: Artist Alan Rohan Crite Was Keenly Aware of the Presence of Christ in the World

By Linner, Rachelle | National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Spirit of the Spiritual: Artist Alan Rohan Crite Was Keenly Aware of the Presence of Christ in the World


Linner, Rachelle, National Catholic Reporter


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Allan Rohan Crite, a painter of everyday African-American life and the granddaddy of the Boston arts scene, died Sept. 6 at the age of 97. At his funeral in Boston's Trinity Church, the Rev. Edward Rodman, a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, eulogized Mr. Crite as a "lay theologian." It is a particularly apt description of this generous, gentle and gracious artist whose works are suffused with a profound incarnational sensibility and informed by a vocabulary of worship that draws from the sacramental life of the Anglican communion.

In his introduction to Three Spirituals from Earth to Heaven, a book of pen and ink drawings on Negro spirituals published in 1948 by Harvard University Press, Mr. Crite wrote that spirituals are a "religious musical literature dedicated to the adoration and worship of almighty God." Mr. Crite's work as a storyteller, liturgical artist and illustrator of the spirituals reveals a similar genius, a religious visual literature that moves the viewer to gratitude and praise.

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Allan Crite's contribution to American art is unfortunately underappreciated. This was due, in no small part, to his adamant refusal to engage in self-promotion. His importance is difficult to gauge because his work is scattered throughout 105 public collections, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Chicago Art Institute and Washington's Phillips Collection.

The Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Art has one of the largest holdings (over 450 objects) and recently opened a memorial exhibition of 54 drawings and paintings. The exhibit ranges from a watercolor done by the 14-year-old Crite to his last major project, a series of etchings done in 1995 to illustrate the Book of Revelation. Two other cultural institutions have concurrent memorial tributes to him. The Boston Athenaeum's collection includes a number of important paintings from the 1930s; highlights of the Boston Public Library's exhibit are stunning images of the Holy Family in Boston's neighborhoods.

Because he wanted his art to be affordable and accessible, Mr. Crite bought a lithograph press in the 1950s and began to reproduce and sell prints at a modest cost. For more than 30 years he produced weekly church bulletins for Episcopal churches, which anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 people looked at. He was a consistent and generous supporter of younger artists, offering them the same kind of professional guidance and mentoring he received in his youth.

Allan Crite was born in 1910 in North Plainfield, N.J., and was 1 year old when his parents moved to Boston. His talent was recognized early; he was 10 or 11 when a teacher got hold of his mother and told her to take him over to the Children's Art Center. He practically grew up in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where he attended children's classes and then studied at the museum's school, graduating in 1936. Later academic work was done at Boston College, the Massachusetts College of Art and Harvard University, where he worked part-time for 20 years and where an academic prize is named for him.

Mr. Crite had a long, fortunate and remarkably productive professional life. He was a 19-year-old student when he was invited to join the Society of Independent Artists and was 24 when he sold his first major painting, "Settling the World's Problems." Favorable reviews led to him being the rare black artist to exhibit in local art galleries. After finishing school, he was hired by the Navy Department as a draftsman and illustrator; his 30-year career with the Navy gave him "a more secure financial basis" and freed him to do his artwork.

Mr. Crite's interest in liturgical art was midwifed in the 1920s when a devout Catholic friend "thought he could bring me into the true religion, you might say. He knew I was an Episcopalian, so he figured it wouldn't be too much of a job to move me over. …

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