"Art like worship and study should be functional, serve a definite purpose and out of that purpose can come beauty of expression and all other decorative characteristics." — Allan Crite, The Artist Craftsman's Work on the Church, Commentary on the 1950s, Vertical File, Library, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Although he is best known for his religious illustrations, Allan Rohan Crite was a significant biographer of urban African-American life in Boston during the 1930s and 1940s. Crite was born in Plainfield, New Jersey, and moved to Boston during his youth and has lived there ever since. He studied at Boston University, the Massachusetts School of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts School, and Harvard University, and was awarded degrees from the last two institutions. Crite has never married.
During the Depression years and into the 1940s when many African-American artists were engaged in mural projects, Crite developed a series of "neighborhood paintings" that were inspired by his Boston community's predominantly African-American Roxbury district. Crite has made the following statement concerning his neighborhood paintings:
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, Vertical File, Library, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
During the late 1930s Crite began to concentrate primarily on religious themes. His productions were largely in pen and ink and lithography. Crite, a devout Episcopalian, views his religious themes from a contemporary perspective. His illustrations are nationally known, and he is the author of three books, Were You There? and Three Spirituals published by Harvard University, and All Glory, a meditation on the Prayer of Consecration in the Eucharistic Rite of the Episcopalian Church. Crite has painted murals and Stations of the Cross in various parishes in several states, and has also designed private devotional works such as the Creed, Stations of the Cross, and parish bulletins that are furnished to churches in the United States and Mexico.
In 1937 Crite began a series of brush-and-ink drawings depicting three spirituals. This series was published in a large volume, Three Spirituals From Earth to Heaven, by Harvard University in 1948. The three songs selected by Crite are among the best loved of all African-American spirituals, Nobody Knows the Trouble I See, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, and Heaven. In Crite's highly individualistic approach he translated the text of the spirituals from a musical context to a visual one. The general theme treats the transition of man from the earthly sphere of his activities to his ultimate destination in heaven. During the time when many spirituals were conceived most African Americans were unable to read. Spirituals formed an oral tradition through which the lessons of the Bible were passed from generation to generation. The hymns are of two types, narrative and contemplative; narrative hymns tell stories from the Biblewhile contemplative hymns deal with lessons and ethical implications of the Bible in daily life.
The three hymns in Crite's illustrations are contemplative in nature. A human figure is used as the motif or melody figure in the first two hymns, and in the last spiritual the motif figures are first robes, then harps, and finally wings. The motif figures represent the melody, and the background represents the accompaniment. Small drawings on the left-hand pages of the book echo the character of the large illustrations and act as connecting links from phrase to phrase as the hymn progresses.
Crite's pen-and-brush drawings for Three Spirituals are probably the masterpieces among his religious works. From both an iconographical and technical point of view, the fresh and original treatment of each verse of the popular hymns was splendidly conceived. Crite's masterly handling of the brush-and-ink medium in which each line serves an expressive purpose reveals the talents of an artist with few peers among his generation. All of the figures in Crite's paintings and illustrations are represented as African Americans, and attest to his deeply instilled sense of racial pride.
Regenia A. Perry Free within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art in Association with Pomegranate Art Books, 1992)