Famously portrayed in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, Evangeline: A Tale of Arcadie, from 1847, this mythical heroine followed the path of the ancestors of many Cajuns, including George Rodrigue. She lived as a young woman in the town of Grand Pré in Nova Scotia where, according to Longfellow,
“Fair was she to behold, that maiden of seventeen summers.
Black were her eyes as the berry that grows on the thorn by the way-side.
Black, yet how softly they gleamed beneath the brown shade of her tresses!”
Her lover, her fiancée Gabriel, “a mighty man in the village and honored by all men,” was the son of Basil the blacksmith. Among her many suitors, it was only Gabriel who won her heart.
But their star-crossed fate emerged when the British invaded Nova Scotia in 1755 and when, along with their friends and families, they learned,
“…that all your lands, and dwellings, and cattle of all kinds
Forfeited be to the crown; and that you yourselves from this province
Be transported to other lands. God grant you may dwell there
Ever as faithful subjects, a happy and peaceable people!
Prisoners now I declare you; for such is his Majesty’s pleasure!”
In the persecution that followed, Evangeline and Gabriel were separated, and she spent the rest of her long life searching for him, mostly through the swamps and prairies of southwest Louisiana, a path she took having heard he had done the same:
“…a maiden who waited and wandered,
Lowly and meek in spirit, and patiently suffering all things.
Fair was she and young; but, alas! before her extended,
Dreary and vast and silent, the desert of life, with its pathway
Marked by the graves of those who had sorrowed and suffered before her,
Passions long extinguished, and hopes long dead and abandoned….”
Reunited in old age, Evangeline, now a nun, tended to Gabriel in the last few minutes of his life, when she happened upon him by chance as she cared for the sick in Pennsylvania.
It’s a heartbreaking, romantic story — the vision of Evangeline wandering for years along the banks of the Bayou Teche and beneath the splendid Louisiana oaks. The legend inspires many artists, and its mystique is so great that the towns of New Iberia and St. Martinville disputed the location of the ‘Evangeline Oak,’ purportedly the place she wept and “stood like one entranced.” George’s mother remembers the public controversy in the 1920s when both cities claimed this landmark tree. Although St. Martinville eventually won out, for many residents any grand and ancient oak in southwest Louisiana deserves the title.
“As, through the garden gate, beneath the brown shade of the oak-trees,
Passed she along the path to the edge of the measureless prairie.”
(pictured, George Rodrigue in Carrara, Italy, 1983, with the plaster cast of his statue Longfellow, Evangeline, and Gabriel; and with the finished bronze statue in Kaliste-Saloom Office Park, Lafayette, Louisiana, photographed in 2007; for more on these sculptures visit here)
He used several models for Evangeline over the years, including a waitress he barely knew, a silent movie actress he never knew, and most often the daughter of his good friends Bertha and Curtis Bernard. (below, actress Dolores del Rio as Evangeline, from Rodrigue’s Saga of the Acadians, 1984-1989)
He photographed Diane Bernard Keogh hundreds of times during several sessions in the 1970s and used these same photographs for Evangeline paintings over the next twenty years. In an ironic twist that Evangeline herself would appreciate, Diane came to work for George in 1996 and remains an important part of Rodrigue Studio today.
“…Stood she, and listened and looked, until, overcome by emotion,
“Gabriel!” cried she aloud with tremulous voice; but no answer
Came from the graves of the dead, nor the gloomier grave of the living”