Biography

Ralston Crawford was born on September 25, 1906 in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, near Niagara Falls. In 1910 his family moved to Buffalo, New York, where Crawford often accompanied his ship captain father on trips across the Great Lakes. Crawford become a sailor and traveled to the Caribbean, Central America, and all along the California coast before returning in 1927 to start attending art schools.

For roughly six years Crawford attended a variety of art institutes across the US and Europe. Included were the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he studied with Hugh Breckenridge, the Barnes Foundation, in Pennsylvania, and the Hugh Breckenridge School in Massachusetts. While in Los Angeles, Crawford also worked part-time as an animator for Walt Disney studios. His time at the Barnes Foundation, from 1927 to 1930, was greatly influenced by the works of Cezanne, as well as fellow AmericansCharles Sheeler and Charles Demuth. Eventually Crawford made his way to Paris where he enrolled at the Academia Colarossi in 1932 followed by the Academie Scandinave in 1933. Finally he finished his academic sojourn at Columbia University.

Despite his appreciation for the styles and techniques of artists like Cézanne and Matisse, Crawford quickly found his love of the sea and his desire to capture its essence was more adequately rendered by the employment of the emerging principles of Precisionism and Abstract Expressionism. The majority of his early works focus on technological and industrial subjects. Crawford's work is characterized by its austerity, sharp outlines, and flat color he combined into a unique perspective. Towards the end of the 1930s, Crawford began to experiment even more with the themes of Abstraction. In addition to his painting, Crawford was also a prolific photographer, printmaker, and lithographer. Interested in rural architectural forms, he moved to Pennsylvania for five years, after which time he held a number of teaching positions and guest lecturer titles around the country.

During the Second World War Crawford served as Chief of the Visual Presentation Unit of the Weather Division in the Army Air Force. He applied easily recognizable symbols to indicate rain, snow, clouds, and other meteorological conditions so that military personnel would have iconographic representations of the weather. After the war Fortune magazine commissioned Crawford to be a witness at the atomic-bomb test at Bikini Atoll on the Marshall Islands. In his portrayal of the blast and its aftermath Crawford created a color serigraph of the U.S.S. Nevada— the ship used as the target. His composition was overwhelmingly abstract portraying both the blast and its wreckage.

Following a trip to Europe in the early 50s the subjects of Crawford’s paintings reflected those travels with canvases of Spanish bullfighting, the war ruins of Cologne, as well as the Easter procession in Seville. Upon his return to the states Crawford began going to New Orleans his work began to reflect his affection for the city. In addition to his group of paintings inspired by the St. Louis cemetery Crawford also created on a series of photographs documenting the local African American jazz musicians.

Diagnosed with cancer in 1971 and given a month to live Crawford finally succumbed to the disease on April 27, 1978 in Houston, Texas. Survived by his wife and three children, his family laid him to rest in his much-loved city of New Orleans with a traditional jazz funeral.

 

Written by Hali Thurber