A History of Evangeline in Rodrigue Paintings

There are enough Rodrigue Evangelines to fill an entire museum exhibition. He’s painted the Acadian heroine one hundred or more times over nearly forty years. Like Jolie Blonde, the Oak Tree, and the Blue Dog, she is a staple in his work, a protagonist as much for him as she is in the story of Acadiana.

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.”

From the beginning Evangeline was a natural painting subject for George. He also incorporated her into his first major public sculpture.

(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”

“Olden memories rose, and loud in the midst of the music

Heard she the sound of the sea, and an irrepressible sadness

Came o’er her heart, and unseen she stole forth into the garden.”

“Sweet on the summer air was the odor of flowers in the garden;

And she paused on her way to gather the fairest among them…”

“Fuller of fragrance then they, and as heavy with shadows and night-dews,

Hung the heart of the maiden.”

People usually are surprised to learn that George never abandons a subject. He adds to and manipulates those symbols and shapes that he’s made his own. As with the Louisiana oak tree, Evangeline too remained important on his canvas well into the Blue Dog Series. In the early 1990s when he painted at a side building at Landry’s Restaurant in Henderson, Louisiana, he photographed one of the restaurant’s employees and adopted her image as a modern-day Evangeline. (below:1992, 24×30, 1995, 72×36)

At the same time, he continued to use photographs of Diane Bernard and other models in contemporary designs of Louisiana oaks, the Blue Dog, and Evangeline. (below, 1992, 24×20; 1995, 48×60)

Admittedly, it’s been some time since George has painted Evangeline. However, I would be surprised if she never appeared on his canvas again: “Something there was in her life incomplete, imperfect, unfinished.”

Jolie Blonde, however, appears regularly in Rodrigue paintings today, as she has since he first painted her in 1974. (I’m afraid I unwittingly swayed the artist in this case.)

But in this story we pay tribute to Evangeline who swooned,

“O Gabriel! O my beloved!”Art thou so near unto me, and yet I cannot behold thee?

Art thou so near unto me, and yet thy voice does not reach me?

Ah! how often thy feet have trod this path to the prairie!

Ah! how often thine eyes have looked on the woodlands around me!

Ah! how often beneath this oak, returning from labor,

Thou hast lain down to rest, and to dream of me in thy slumbers.

When shall these eyes behold, these arms be folded about thee?”

… perhaps a heroine not just for Louisiana, but for all who search for love.


*All quotes in this post are from Evangeline by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, published 1847

For more on Rodrigue’s sculptures of Evangeline see the post “The Bronzes”

For a related post discussing Rodrigue’s use of photographs and models see “Nature Girl (The Art of Modeling)”

7 thoughts on “A History of Evangeline in Rodrigue Paintings

  1. what a wonderful record of Rodrigue's work with explanation of what he was thinking at the time! I have bookmarked this and will come back often. thanks Wendy!

  2. Wendy –

    I thought you might enjoy this footage of a very young Sheryl Crow, the legendary Levon Helm and Emmylou Harris singing one of my favorite Emmylou songs loosely based on the Longfellow poem.

  3. Wendy,

    Thank you for sending this link! Very nice reading and yes those paintings are just 'lovely'.

    The "Grandmother's Shawl" is definitely one of the top favorite. The reasons? Well, the secondary subjects, namely Evangeline and the background oaks and moss are more 'realistic' meaning on a scale where George's effects exploits a range on a scale between realism to abstract. The primary subject, the Shawl, which is actually the 'glowing' item representing the generations' past. More accurately, her grandmother. As I mentioned to you earlier, is an aptly representation of my family situation, my mom being an acadian decendent born and raised mostly in the Cajun country. My daughter, now does have mom's white shawl as she passed away May 3rd. You've described this piece as a haunting one, I see it differently, as Life itself, a rich Catholic and a Cajun one. You know, I grew up in a household where my parents collected fina art, and I've learned to aprreciate and interpret such fine art at a young age.

    Maybe if I send some pictures of my mom in her youth,

    and our Cajun family reunions from the Bayou Country, George may be re-inspired to do more of the Cajun culture oil on canvas?

    Again, thank you again for pointing me to this page,
    -Grandmother's Shawl

  4. Thank you so much Wendy for explaining the Blue Dog. I have been transfixed by him since I first saw him and had dificulty explaining it to my friends "Why do you like that funny blue dog?" Just do, so much more than a blue dog.

  5. Thank you, weildkat. Along those same lines, people asked me when I started this blog, "If you limit your posts to George and his paintings, won't you run out of things to write?"

    That was two years and more than 200 essays ago. They stopped asking….

    Many thanks for your comments!

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