Like ghosts of Evangeline, André Chastant’s daughters float brilliant in white and framed within the landscape of southwest Louisiana. The painting, a combination of photograph and imagination, is my favorite from George Rodrigue’s Cajun period.
These daughters are not posed around their father as though for a photograph. Rather, they exist as one unit, a wave-like, footless, luminous shape encased by oak trees and bushes. Lacking his daughters’ brilliance, their father stands barely noticeable, like a shadow among the shadow-less girls.
-click photo to enlarge-
(pictured, The Daughters of André Chastant, 1971 by George Rodrigue, 24×36 inches, oil on canvas)
The Daughters of André Chastant first appeared in print in the landmark book, The Cajuns of George Rodrigue (1976, Oxmoor House), the first book published nationally on the Cajun culture, also recommended by the National Endowment for the Arts to First Lady Rosalind Carter, who chose it as an official Gift of State during the Carter Administration. Within, Rodrigue wrote in English and French about the painting:
“Typical of Louisiana are men such as André Chastant whose life centered around his political campaigns. Once when running for sheriff, he chose to emphasize the necessity of the Cajuns preserving their heritage by dressing his daughters up as early Acadians and sending them out into the parish on the campaign trail.”
I asked him years ago about this tale and received the answer I now expect:
“I made it up.”
The real story, however, is just as interesting, if not more so. The original photograph includes his mother, Marie Courrege (second from left), and her friends gathered at a train depot in New Iberia, Louisiana in the 1920s. They wore Evangeline costumes and sang for a visiting French dignitary following his speech from the back of a caboose.
Rodrigue removed the girls from the train station, pasting them instead into a Louisiana landscape. He cut the Frenchman from the train and inserted him within the design, renaming him Chastant, a key portrait within his Aioli Dinner of the same year, and imagining him as a father-figure to his mother and her friends.
Although the photograph inspiring this painting is lost, this type of tribute exists throughout twentieth century Cajun history. The infamous Louisiana politician Dudley LeBlanc posed with Evangeline-clad young women in front of the White House in the 1950s, followed a decade later by President John F. Kennedy.
Rodrigue’s painting includes his typical oaks, cut off at the top so that the light shines from beneath. The girls, trees, bushes and sky weave together in a deliberate pattern, locked without room for changes of any kind.
Subtlety does exist, however, within this highly ordered work. At first glance the painting appears black and white. Yet Rodrigue insists,
“My palette during those years was as bright as my Blue Dogpalette today.”
Indeed, a closer look reveals reds, blues and yellows, visible throughout the original painting, but most obvious in the photograph within the dresses and sky. (Be sure and click the photo to enlarge).
Notice in the painting how the figures never touch the sky. They exist only within the strong shapes of a Rodrigue landscape, their hard edges belying their ghostly aura. Rodrigue is famous for saying that the Cajuns “glow with their culture.” Like his fabricated story of the sheriff and his daughters, he uses subject, design and symbolism to create a suspension of disbelief.
In The Daughters of André Chastant, as with most of his Cajun paintings, Rodrigue crosses time and reality, questioning the importance of both.
-for a related post, see “Broussard’s Barber Shop: Melding Fact with Fiction”-
-for more on Marie Rodrigue, see the story “The Artist’s Mother.” For more paintings with Marie, see “The Class” and “Boudreaux in a Barrel”-
-although this is my favorite painting from Rodrigue’s Cajun period, my favorite painting of all time is a Blue Dog from 1991, linked here–
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