That Peculiar Humor

A Pastoral Visit by Richard Norris Brooke, 1881. The Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., provides some background:

A Pastoral Visit depicts an elderly minister seated at a table with a family of parishioners. Of the numerous paintings by Brooke that represent African American life in rural northern Virginia, this is the most celebrated. The artist portrayed the figures in this large canvas with a degree of humanity and dignity rare in 19th-century images of African Americans, which Brooke criticized as “works of flimsy treatment and vulgar exaggeration.” Here, he grouped the highly individualized figures as an intact domestic unit, engaged in a cultural activity important to white and black families alike.

A native of Warrenton, Brooke (1847–1920) was a white man who specialized in painting African Americans.

His embryonic artistic career was interrupted by the Civil War. Afterwards, he was able to study at the Pennsylvania Academy, and in 1877–78 he studied in Paris with Leon Bonnat, the realist and fashionable portrait painter who was also a mentor of Thomas Eakins. A large canvas, ‘The Pastoral Visit’, was his first major painting after his return from France. In it he showed a dignified elderly black minister seated at a table with a family of his parishioners. When Brooke offered this to the Board of the Corcoran for purchase, he explained his purpose:

It must have struck many of you that the fine range of subject afforded by Negro domestic life has been strangely abandoned to works of flimsy treatment and vulgar exaggeration. That peculiar humor which is characteristic of the race, and varies with the individual, cannot be thus crudely conveyed.

Hard to tell what he meant by “that peculiar humor”; did Brooke capture black people, or just people people? Whatever the case, it’s a wonderful painting.


3 thoughts

  1. The woman in the picture is Georgianna Weeks, my mother’s grandmother. My mother gave notes to the curator. I think she said his name was Rev. Brown. I do not know what church he pastored.


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