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Allan Rohan Crite, 97, dean of N.E. African-American artists

Allan Rohan Crite, the dean of African-American artists in New England and a revered figure in the South End for many decades, died Thursday. He was 97.

Mr. Crite died of natural causes in his Boston home, said his wife, Jackie.

A 2002 Boston Globe review called Mr. Crite "the granddaddy of the Boston art scene," hailing him as "a master of his craft and a treasure of his community." In 1986, the intersection of Columbus Avenue and West Canton Street was named Allan Rohan Crite Square.

For decades, his townhouse was a mecca for local artists and art lovers, bulging with his art and a repository of memories vividly recalled and insights freely offered. It's now home to the Allan Rohan Crite Research Institute and Museum.

"I have a relatively active life, and anybody looking at my guestbook," he said in a 1979 interview with the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, "they say, 'You have more visitors than any two people.' And, of course, that's what happens."

Extremely prolific, Mr. Crite produced a large volume of paintings, drawings, and prints. Although he gave up painting in the mid-'70s, he remained otherwise active into his 90s.

Mr. Crite was a proudly unique figure. His being black in a largely white art world was only part of that uniqueness. He lived almost his entire life in Boston, despite New York being the capital of American art. As early as 1936, his work was exhibited at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Mr. Crite's work is in the permanent collection of several local institutions - the Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Athenaeum, Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, the Boston Public Library, the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Art, and the Addison Gallery of American Art - but it can also be found in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Institution, the Phillips Collection, the Corcoran Gallery of American Art, and the St. Louis Museum of Art. In 2001, the Frye Art Museum, in Seattle, exhibited a retrospective of his work.

Mr. Crite was a representational artist in a period increasingly ruled by abstraction. And in a century where secular subjects dominated the visual arts, he did some of his most notable work on religious themes.

"I am a liturgical artist," Mr. Crite, who was Episcopalian, liked to say. Indeed, for many years he supplemented his income by providing artwork for the weekly bulletins of Episcopal and Catholic parishes in several states. When Christ Church Episcopal in Bronxville, N.Y., dedicated a stained-glass window in Mr. Crite's honor in 1994, it lauded him as "the best-known artist in the Episcopal Church."

He was baptized in and grew up attending St. Bartholomew's Church in Cambridge. He attended St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in the South End as an adult. Race and religion combined in his work in the many paintings he began executing in the 1930s of biblical scenes in which the figures were black and the settings were inner-city neighborhoods.

Mr. Crite's purpose in doing so was threefold, he told the Smithsonian: "one, the story of black people in this city as I saw them; another one, the idea of the spirituals as part of the literature; the third, telling the story of man using the black figure."

He saw his art providing "a link between something specific and parochial as far as racial identity is concerned to my faith and the general area of what you might call the pluralistic society in which we live."

If the exaltation of religion helped define Mr. Crite's art, so did the everydayness of street life in the South End.

"No one has done a better job than Allan in detailing the African-American community in Boston," Michael Shinagel, dean of the Harvard Extension School, said in a 2000 Boston Globe Magazine profile of Mr. Crite.

"As a visual artist," Mr. Crite said in a 1998 interview with the Harvard Extension School Alumni Bulletin, "I am . . . a storyteller of the drama of man. This is my small contribution - to tell the African-American experience - in a local sense, of the neighborhood, and, in a larger sense, of its part in the total human experience."

Mr. Crite was born in North Plainfield, N.J., on March 20, 1910. His parents were Oscar William Crite, an engineer, and Annamae Crite. The family moved to the South End before he turned 1.

An unpublished poet with a strong interest in culture, Mr. Crite's mother began taking him to museums at a young age. One of his early drawings was sent to Isabella Stewart Gardner, founder of the Gardner Museum, "and she was rather pleased," Mr. Crite recalled for the Smithsonian.

Mr. Crite added that he "practically lived in the Museum of Fine Arts from the days of my youth on up, brought in a baby carriage."

Early on, Mr. Crite demonstrated a talent for drawing. He began taking lessons as a fifth-grader, studying at the Children's Art Centre on Rutland Street. He attended Boston Latin School and graduated from English High School. Accepted at Yale, he instead went to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, from which he graduated in 1936. Mr. Crite also took classes at Boston University and Massachusetts College of Art.

In 1968, he earned a bachelor's degree from the Harvard Extension School. He was a recipient in 1986 of the 350th Harvard University Anniversary Medal.

It took Mr. Crite seven years to graduate from the Museum School because his father had been left an invalid by a stroke while Mr. Crite was still in high school. "Having a father who was practically helpless, that had a very sobering effect," he told the Smithsonian. Mr. Crite's father died in 1937. Mr. Crite supported his mother until her death, in 1977.

Further hampering Mr. Crite was the Depression. He found work as an artist with the US Treasury's Public Works of Art Project and, later, the Works Progress Administration.

In 1940, Mr. Crite started working as a draftsman at the Boston Naval Shipyard, a job he'd hold for most of the next 30 years. The salary allowed him to keep painting and drawing. Also, he later worked part time at Harvard's Grossman Library.

Mr. Crite published several books, including "Wish You Were There When They Crucified My Lord" (1944), "Three Spirituals" and "All Glory" (both in 1948), and "Book of Revelation" (1994).

"My business is to do my work to the best of my ability," Mr. Crite said in the 2000 Globe Magazine interview. "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."

The funeral will be Sept. 15 at 11 a.m. in Trinity Church in Copley Square. Burial will be private.

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