A Pastoral Visit, the most celebrated of Richard Norris Brooke’s genre scenes, or views of everyday life, depicts a family welcoming their elderly pastor to Sunday dinner—a frequent occurrence in both black and white rural parishes that could not afford parsonages. According to tradition, the pastor is served first and, following the meal, he will be presented with both the cigar box containing the congregation’s weekly contribution (duly protected by the family patriarch) and the cloth-wrapped fruit at right. The banjo, prominently placed at the center of the composition symbolizing its importance in African American culture, may indicate an after-dinner musical interlude.
The family’s home, rustic but comfortable, features a sturdy cupboard housing pottery and glass and brick fireplace on whose mantel are neatly arranged a coffee grinder, a ginger jar, and clothes irons. Decorating the corner near a damaged window are a circus poster and a string of dried chilies. Brooke had ample opportunity to study the interior depicted; it was located in a residence near his home in Warrenton, Virginia, where he painted the canvas. Likewise, the features of the figures resulted from the artist’s use of his Warrenton neighbors as models: George Washington, Georgianna Weeks, and Daniel Brown.
Brooke was one of many artists to depict African American life in the 1870s and 1880s, inspired by the dramatic social change during Reconstruction, when blacks achieved citizenship, voting rights, and protection under the Constitution. Unlike many of his peers, he portrayed his subjects with a degree of humanity and dignity rare in contemporary depictions of African Americans. In his letter offering the painting to the Corcoran Gallery of Art for purchase, Brooke criticized such renderings as “works of flimsy treatment and vulgar exaggeration.” He also referenced his recent French academic training, stating that he wished to elevate his rural subject “to that plane of sober and truthful treatment which ... has dignified the Peasant subjects of [his French contemporary] Jules Breton, and should characterize every work of art.”
In 1881, Brooke relocated from Warrenton to a well-known Washington studio building, Vernon Row, just east of the White House. There, he exhibited the painting and arranged for its loan and subsequent sale to the Corcoran. Active in almost every local arts organization of the day, the successful artist served as vice principal at the Corcoran School of Art from 1902 to 1918 and exhibited extensively at that institution. For reasons not entirely understood, soon after completing A Pastoral Visit he devoted himself almost entirely to landscape painting.
lower right: Richd. N. Brooke. 1881. / (ELEVE DE BONNAT - PARIS)
Purchased 7 May 1881 from the artist by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.
- Vernon Row, Washington, D.C., February 1881, no catalogue, as A Visit From the Parson.
- Exhibition of Paintings of Negro Subjects by White American Artists, Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 9 March - 12 April 1942, unnumbered catalogue.
- An Exhibition of Nineteenth Century Virginia Genre, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, 17 January - 13 February 1946, no. 5.
- The Romantic Century, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 22 June - 9 September 1963, no catalogue.
- The Portrayal of the Negro in American Painting, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, 15 May - 15 July 1964, no. 58.
- Corcoran [The American Genius]. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 24 January - 4 April 1976, catalogue with no checklist.
- Children in America: A Study of Images and Attitudes, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 30 September 1978 - 27 May 1979, catalogue with no checklist.
- African Image, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 17 February - 30 March 1980, no catalogue.
- Of Time and Place: American Figurative Art from the Corcoran Gallery, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Cincinnati Art Museum; San Diego Museum of Art; University of Kentucky Art Museum, Lexington; Hunter Museum of Art, Chattanooga; Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa; Portland Art Museum, Oregon; Des Moines Art Center; Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersberg, FL, 1981-1983, no. 20.
- Ring the Bajar!: The Banjo in America from Folklore to Factory, MIT Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 12 April - 29 September 1984, not in catalogue.
- Domestic Bliss: Family Life in American Painting, 1840-1910, Hudson River Museum, Yonkers; Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum, Rochester, 1986, no. 88.
- Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Rise of Black Churches in Eastern American Cities, 1740-1877, Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, Washington, D.C., 18 October 1987- 20 March 1988, catalogue with no checklist.
- Facing History: The Black Image in American Art, 1710-1940, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Brooklyn Museum, 1990, unnumbered catalogue.
- The Century Club Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 21 July - 13 September 1993, unpublished checklist.
- Old Virginia: The Pursuit of a Pastoral Idea, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, 15 February - 8 June 2003, catalogue with no checklist.
- The Birth of the Banjo, Katonah Museum of Art, New York, 9 November 2003 - 1 February 2004, unnumbered catalogue.
- Figuratively Speaking: The Human Form in American Art, 1770-1950, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 20 November 2004 - 7 August 2005, unpublished checklist.
- Picturing the Banjo, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Pennsylvania State University, University Park; Boston Athenaeum, 2005-2006, catalogue with no checklist.
- American Paintings from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 June-18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
- American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013 - 28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
- Williams, Harmann Warner, Jr. Mirror to the American Past: A Survey of American Genre Painting, 1750-1900. Greenwich, Connecticut, 1973: 214.
- Cosentino, Andrew J., and Henry H. Glassie. The Capital Image: Painters in Washington, 1800-1915. Washington, 1983: 157.
- Dewhurst, C. Kurt, Betty MacDowell, and Marsha MacDowell. Religious Folk Art in America: Reflections of Fath. New York, 1983: 74
- Gerdts, William H. Art Across America: Two Centuries of Regional Painting 1710-1920. New York, 1990: fig. 1.351.
- Lowe, Richard. "To Speak and Act as Freemen: The Emergence of Black Republicans in Postbellum Virginia." Virginia Cavalcade (Autumn 1991): 53.
- Heartney, Eleanor, ed. A Capital Collection: Masterworks from the Corcoran Gallery of Art. London, 2002: 73.
- Strong, Lisa. "Richard Norris Brooke, A Pastoral Visit." In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 31, 152-153, 269-270, repro.