Ernest Crichlow, 91, an artist and illustrator of black life whose figurative paintings offered poignant and unsettling themes, died Nov. 10 at a hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y. He had a heart ailment.

Mr. Crichlow never the enjoyed the celebrity of such contemporaries as Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis, but he teamed with them later in his career to start a New York gallery to promote minority artists.

Depression-era social justice themes were a hallmark of Mr. Crichlow's career, most vividly in works such as "Lovers" (1938), an ironically named lithograph that featured a black woman on the lap and in the grasp of a hooded Klansman.

Many descriptions over the years have assumed the painting depicts an attempted rape. Mr. Crichlow once said he intended far more.

"I felt that this was a statement of the black woman speaking out and crying out sometimes and who really represents what's done to the whole black pride or the black image or whatever you want to call it," he said. "I see her fighting it off, and I see her strong while she's fighting it off. She doesn't seem like a weakling."

Many of his later paintings offered stark commentaries on the civil rights struggle. "Waiting" (1965) showed a black girl staring through a barbed-wire fence. "White Fence" (1967) showed black youths behind a white picket fence, outsiders separated from a hale and happy blond girl in the foreground.

More plaintive pieces such as "Woman in a Blue Coat" (1948) and "The Balcony" (1980) emphasized strong brushwork and a quality of nobility. They characterized what one admirer told the "St. James Guide to Black Artists" was Mr. Crichlow's focus on the "indomitable inner strength, intrinsic beauty, dignity and essential humanity that exists in the African American community."

Starting in the 1940s, Mr. Crichlow illustrated children's books, many with a racial-uplift theme. He also taught for many years at the Art Students League of New York. His work was included in a three-year touring exhibit sponsored in 1999 by the Hewitt Collection of African-American Art.

Mr. Crichlow was born June 19, 1914, in Brooklyn. His parents were immigrants from Barbados, and men and women of the West Indies often appeared in Mr. Crichlow's art.

He inherited some artistic skill from his father, a mason gifted at decorated ceilings. As a child, he made chalk drawings on the sidewalk. That led to his first commission by a preacher, who paid him and a friend $25 to paint a black Jesus. They did so on a window shade.

Art teachers in school began to notice his potential, and they raised money for Mr. Crichlow to attend the School of Commercial Illustrating and Advertising Art in the Flatiron Building in Manhattan.

After graduating during the Depression, he introduced himself to the Harlem sculptor Augusta Savage. She was working to enroll blacks in the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project, a government-funded jobs program for painters and writers.

Mr. Crichlow became a teacher and muralist in that program. In December 1941, he was included with Bearden, Lewis and Jacob Lawrence, among other top black artists, in an important show at the Downtown Gallery in Manhattan.

However, the exhibition opened about the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. "We disappeared," he told Newsday 50 years later.

In 1969, he, Bearden and Lewis opened the Cinque Gallery, named after the leader of the rebellion on the slave ship Amistad. The Manhattan gallery, which recently closed, featured the works of Beverly Buchanan, Nanette Carter and Alvin Loving and others who went on to substantial careers.

Mr. Crichlow was crusty and demanding of his students and not always fond of an attitude he saw in newer generations of painters. "I never say 'art,' I say 'life' because that's what my art is," he told the political newsletter Counterpunch in 2003. "It's everybody's art whether they realize it or not. . . . What I mean to say is that I don't think [modern students] see it as part of their life. They have a tendency to separate. Like, 'This is what I do for a living,' as opposed to 'This is my life.' "

His marriage to Dorothy Kley Crichlow ended in divorce.

Survivors include a son, Anthony Crichlow of Brooklyn; and two sisters.

Ernest Crichlow, shown in 1990 with some of his paintings, offered strong commentary on the civil rights struggle in his work.Crichlow points out a detail during an art class in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was demanding of his students and often lamented their attitude toward art.