RICHARD NORRIS BROOKE (1847-1920)
I was born at Warrenton, Va. Oct. 20, 1847. My father, while I was yet a child, had-made arrangements through his friend Dr. Van Dyke of N.Y. to have- me study sculpture in Rome under Barbee.
The War intervened, and at its close, I went to Philadelphia in Oct. 1865, to procure an outfit to edit a newspaper in Warrenton. (The 'True Index')
In Philadelphia my old propensity revived and, with the aid of my uncle Thaddeus Norris, who lived there and knew the ante bellum plan, and by the advice of Lambdin and Sarteau (artists), I entered the Pennsylvania Academy and took instruction under Edmund Bonsell, illustrator, who made me copy the entire series of colored plates of anatomy. In 1866, I succeeded to the classes of Hebes Reed, deceased, in Mount Vernon Institute, Brad St. Military Academy, and Villa Nova College.
With these and illustrating I supported myself until after a breakdown of health in 1869, I competed in a portrait exhibition for the Chair of Fine Arts, Virginia Military Institute. Feeling buried there, I resigned in 1872, and in 1873, was appointed U.S. Consul at La Rochelle, France. From thence after a visit home in 1877, I went to Paris and studied under Leon Bonnat. Returned in 1879 and painted 'The Pastoral Visit', bought by the Corcoran Gallery. Settled in Washington in 1880 at 'Vernon Row' (note - a number of congenial artist friends located at VR between 9th and 10th Streets on Pennsylvania Ave.). Vice President Washington Art Club 1881-84. Made five visits to Europe to compose the Waggaman Collection. Studied one season (1888) with Carolus Duran.
(Biographical Sketch written by Richard N. Brooke, in a copy made by Jeannie Brooke Ruffin)
Richard Norris Brooke (1847-1920), a native of Warrenton, Virginia, established a reputation in the 1880’s as a painter of Negro subjects. His 'Pastoral Visit' of 1880 was for many years one of the most popular paintings at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. 'Dog Swap' was less well known, but is perhaps the finer painting. Brooke's choices of subject and his reasons for these choices, as well as the critical reaction the painting received, reflect artistic and social values of the time. 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.
In entering this field, by the advice of many of my Artist friends, and with the equipment of a foreign training, I have had a deliberate purpose in view. It has been my aim while recognizing in proper measure the humorous features of my subject, to elevate it to that plane of sober and truthful treatment which, in French Art, has dignified the Peasant subjects of Jules Breton, and should characterize every work of Art. I am pleased to think, from the reception given by the public to this effort. that my object, however realized! ha,s been felt and appreciated. (Apr 18, 1881)
The varying critical attitudes towards 'Dog Swap' may have been similar to those accorded to the more famous Corcoran picture. Both are well painted. What is also important here is that in the 1880s a Southern artist wanted to depict his fellow Southerners, the Negroes, in a sympathetic and dignified light, even though he saw them in a hierarchical status different from his own, just as French middle-class artists saw their peasants as different from themselves. Brooke saw the Negroes as an integral part of Southern culture and wanted to represent them as such. (From Painting in the South: 1564 – 1980, the catalogue of an exhibition held Sept 14 1983 – Feb 3, 1985 at the Virginia Museum, Richmond, and other museums)
THE GOLDEN AGE, 1875-1915
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Washington participated in that great florescence in the arts that permeated all of Western society and that largely emanated out of Paris. Inspired by Baron Hausmann's remaking of Paris, Alexander 'Boss' Shepherd transformed Washington from a raw village into a cosmopolitan center, while William Wilson Corcoran revived the city’s importance as an art center when he established his noted gallery and school of art.
Drawn by the Capital's amenities and by the opportunities offered in the burgeoning federal bureaucracy, the Smithsonian Institution and the Corcoran School of Art, artists came in large numbers and for the first time in the city's history created a rich sense of community. Diversity was the hallmark of the period, although radically innovative art movements such as Symbolism and Impressionism were never fully accepted in Washington. For the first time also, identifiable black artists began to emerge in significant numbers. Emulating the somber moods of the Barbizon masters painters of the Washington Landscape School such as Richard Norris Brooke, Max Weyl and William Henry Holmes joined efforts in recording the rapidly disappearing beauties of Rock Creek and the Potomac, creating some of the most enduring images associated with the Capital.
With the growing importation of transient artists from the 1890s on to work on such projects as the new Library of Congress and the redesigned Mall and to participate in the Corcoran Gallery's biennial exhibitions, local traditions began to decline. The death of such favorite local artists as Brooke, Weyl, Edmund Clarence Messer and James Henry Moser hastened the decline ending a rare moment of felicitous artistic expression in the Capital's history. (From The Capital Image: Painters in Washington, 1800-1912 catalogue printed on the occasion of an exhibition at the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., Oct. 19, 1983-Jan. 22, 1984)
The picture by which he (RNB) is represented in the Corcoran Gallery, 'The Pastoral Visit,' an ante-bellum subject, is excellent, but he himself greatly preferred his landscape paintings, and it was in producing these that he found greatest joy and satisfaction. The themes that appealed to him most were those found in the vicinity of his old home at Warrenton, Va., simple views of rolling country, lovely because of color and tonal effects.
He was one who painted for the sheer love of expression, and found endless delight in the beauty of nature. He was almost morbidly conscientious, unselfish, self-effacing, but he had a boyish love of a holiday and ability for keen enjoyment.
He was an excellent and an ardent teacher, and by his pupils at the Corcoran Gallery, and earlier at the Art Students' League, as well as in his summer classes, he was regarded as a boon companion and was much beloved. He will not only be mourned, but missed; his passing leaves a gap in the ranks which will be hard to fill. (Excerpt from commemorative article in The Sunday Star, Washington, D.C., May 2 1920)
Many, many thanks to Edith Brooke Roberts for providing all of the information in this biography. Richard Norris Brooke was her great uncle.