Artist John McCrady was born in the rectory of Grace Episcopal Church in Canton, Mississippi, on 11 September 1911, the seventh child of Rev. Edward McCrady and Mary Tucker McCrady. The family moved to Greenwood and then to Hammond and Lake Charles, Louisiana, before settling in Oxford, where Rev. McCrady assumed the rectorship at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and served as head of the philosophy department at the University of Mississippi. John graduated from University High in 1930 after starring on the football team and occasionally contributing illustrations to the school newspaper. His nascent artistic talent was further evident at the University of Mississippi, where he illustrated sections of the school’s 1931 and 1932 yearbooks.
McCrady left the University of Mississippi after his sophomore year to attend the New Orleans Art School but soon moved to New York after winning a one-year scholarship to the prestigious Art Students League. He studied with Kenneth Hays Miller and Thomas Hart Benton, two luminaries of the American Scene, a popular arts movement emphasizing native scenes and regional subject matter. However, McCrady felt uninspired by his urban surroundings and ultimately realized that his artistic muse would be the South—specifically, Oxford and the surrounding Lafayette County countryside. He returned to New Orleans in 1934.
Working in his French Quarter studio, McCrady began painting evocative representations of rural life, colorful scenes of the Oxford square, and detailed renderings of the town’s vernacular architecture. Although he spent only four years in North Mississippi, he made the region the subject of nearly fifty works over his thirty-five-year career. McCrady was particularly drawn to Lafayette County’s African American residents, whom he depicted in an affectionate yet often caricatured manner.
Early in his career, McCrady supplemented his meager income via the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. He had his first one-man show in Philadelphia in 1936; a solo exhibition in New York came the following year. The shows brought him national recognition in Newsweek, Time, Life, and the New Republic. In 1938 he married Mary Basso, a former classmate of McCrady’s at the New Orleans Art School and sister of author and Faulkner cohort Hamilton Basso. Within three years the couple had their only child, Mary Tucker McCrady.
In 1939 McCrady received a Guggenheim fellowship to document black cultural and religious life in the South. Guided by his ecclesiastical upbringing, the artist was drawn to black spirituals and religious narratives, making them the subject of several paintings from this period. One such work, Judgment Day, was included in a 1941 Carnegie Institute exhibit in Philadelphia and a show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
When the United States entered World War II, McCrady illustrated government propaganda posters and designed tools for a New Orleans manufacturer of military seaplanes. In August 1942 the success of the evening art classes he held for his coworkers at the seaplane plant led him to establish the John McCrady Art School, where many recognized Louisiana artists began their careers. It remained in operation until 1983.
As abstract, European-influenced idioms gained artistic popularity and racial inequalities were less openly tolerated, McCrady’s unassuming regional aesthetic and often caricatured depictions of African Americans appeared increasingly provincial and outmoded. Thus, when McCrady exhibited his work in New York in 1946, the American Communist Party’s Daily Worker called the show a “flagrant example of racial chauvinism.” McCrady reeled from the criticism and nearly ceased painting until the National Institute of Arts and Letters awarded him a 1949 grant in recognition of his “warm poetic vision of life in the South.”
For the next two decades, McCrady focused on teaching, though he continued to depict his beloved Oxford and Lafayette County in numerous easel paintings as well as in a large triptych, The Square, The Courthouse, and The Campus. McCrady’s works are held by the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the St. Louis Art Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and many private collections in Mississippi and Louisiana. He died on 24 December 1968 in New Orleans.
- Patti Carr Black, Art in Mississippi, 1720–1980 (1998)
- Robert L. Gambone, Art and Popular Religion in Evangelical America, 1915–1940 (1989)
- Life (October 1937)
- Keith Marshall, John McCrady, 1911–1968 (1975)
- Matthew Martinez, Louisiana Cultural Vistas (Winter 1992)
- Tom Payne, Oxford American (February 1995)
- Patricia Phagan, The American Scene and the South: Paintings and Works on Paper, 1930–1946 (1996)
- Stark Young, New Republic (November 1937)