Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Saga of the Acadians

Between 1985 and 1989, George Rodrigue painted the Saga of the Acadians, a series of fifteen paintings chronicling the Acadian journey from France to Nova Scotia in the 17th century, from Nova Scotia to Louisiana during the Grand Dérangement of 1755, and finally the first official return visit from Southwest Louisiana to Grand Pré in the 1930s.

I’ve written about this series so often over the years that I’m struggling to find something ‘fresh’ for a blog. And yet maybe there’s no reason to approach the works in a new way. They are George’s graphic interpretation of the story of his ancestors, and perhaps the less analyzation the better.

However, just for fun, before laying out each painting’s history I’ll provide here a few interesting tidbits:

In 1984, the year before he began the Saga, George painted his first Blue Dog. Over the next five years he painted not only the loup-garou, but also a number of important Cajun works and portraits, including paintings of Hank Williams and President Ronald Reagan, as well as the Saga of the Acadians. Many people don’t realize that there was a long crossover period of both Blue Dog and Cajun works.

George narrowed the Acadian story down to fifteen paintings. He’s said many times that had he wanted to, the expansive saga could have been two hundred paintings.

These works are painted in oil, completed just prior to George’s struggle with hepatitis, resulting in his switch to acrylic paint. He’s often mentioned the marathon pace of painting both this series and the forty canvases for the book Bayou as having brought on his illness.

The paintings typify George’s style, established years before with works such as the Aioli Dinner. The figures appear to be cut out and pasted onto the landscape, just as the Cajuns were cut out of Canada and pasted onto South Louisiana, where they started life again, making a home for themselves in the swamps and prairies. The oak trees are cut off at the top so that light shines from underneath, representing the small sky of Louisiana (as opposed to the big sky of neighboring Texas), as well as a distant hope for these transplanted people. Rather than shadowed beneath the trees, the people shine in white, glowing with their culture.

The Saga of the Acadians was originally in the collection of the Landry and Defez Families in Henderson, Louisiana. They donated the works to the Acadian Village Museum in Lafayette, Louisiana, where for ten years the museum housed a George Rodrigue annex, focusing on the Saga, with supplemental paintings loaned by the artist.

Eventually the Anne and Wendell Gauthier Family of New Orleans (by way of Southwest Louisiana) acquired the collection. Through their generosity the paintings tour museums throughout the state of Louisiana, focusing on small venues in Cajun communities. For a list of 2011 tour dates and locations, visit here.

The Saga of the Acadians by George Rodrigue, 1985-1989

All paintings are oil on canvas, 36x24 inches

(Descriptions researched and written with the help of Dana Holland-Beickert for the New Orleans Museum of Art)

The Sailing of the Jonah depicts the beginning of a journey in 1604 from Normandy, France, to what is now Nova Scotia. This journey launched the beginning of an ethnic group destined to fascinate the world.

Pilgrims. Frenchmen were the first settlers of the North American continent. Arriving just north of Plymouth Rock in 1604, they lived a family-oriented lifestyle in the harsh Nova Scotia wilderness.

The First Planting. These imaginative settlers (now Acadians) developed fertile farmland in their marsh-like territory. So successful were their efforts, many historians feel the Acadians were deported in order to make room for British settlers who coveted these productive grounds.

The Fight for an Empire. French soldiers board a ship just ahead of advancing British troops. Caught between two military giants, the Acadian settlers were soon to have their tranquil lifestyle destroyed forever.

The Church at Grand Pré was the first Catholic Church built in Nova Scotia. The British troops used it as a prison for the soon-to-be-exiled Acadians.

Leave Our Homes? Hell No! The British used harsh tactics to subdue these stubborn settlers. Permanent guards were posted at each home, forcing its inhabitants to live for an extended period in the unsheltered wilderness.

With No Country to Call Home, the Pilgrims originally settled in Nova Scotia to satisfy the expansion needs of Motherland France. Following British victory, they were required to forsake the Catholic religion and swear allegiance to the British king. Refusing on both issues, they were deported to many lands, and often refused entry. Even in France, they were considered “no longer French.”

Final Insult. Deported Acadians were forced to endure the harsh winter in open vessels in the North Atlantic. This controversial painting shows a soldier of the Crown offering a diseased blanket as cover for a child.

A Final Look at Acadie. Forcibly driven from their homes and separated from those they loved, the stage was set in 1755 for the odyssey to begin and for Longfellow to immortalize this epic journey.

The First Cajuns. After many years without a homeland, these steadfast Acadians reached their long sought “Land of the Oaks” and became Cajuns.

The Last Novena for Gabriel. Evangeline, symbol of forced separation of families, friends and those in love, offers one final prayer for her Gabriel.

Macque Choux. Native Indians assisted the Cajuns in understanding the indigenous ingredients available to them for cooking. (Macque Choux is a corn dish of South Louisiana)

He-bert, Yes – A Bear, No. In 1912 Louisiana Governor Hall issued a special edict that French could no longer be spoken in school. (See the post, Jimmy Domengeaux, George Rodrigue, and a Few Other Louisiana Characters)

Evangeline – A Silent Classic. The oak is revisited by Hollywood in 1929 in its rendition of Longfellow’s Evangeline, starring Dolores del Rio. (As a side note, I found this movie and surprised George with it not long after we were married. Later that evening George, his two boys, his mother, our neighbors and I could all be found in the den, snoozing in front of the quiet film. It knocked out every one of us.)

Return to Acadie. Dudley LeBlanc became the first Cajun on record to revisit his roots: the historic Church of Grand Pré in Nova Scotia. At the time, LeBlanc’s Hadacol was second in America for advertising expenses behind Coca-Cola. (I will write a post on Dudley LeBlanc down the road. He’s certainly a Louisiana character, and his famous elixir and traveling medicine show, the Hadacol Caravan, are legendary.)

I leave you with a photograph (1960s) of former Louisiana State Senator Dudley J. LeBlanc with his 'Evangelines' at the White House (note President John F. Kennedy in the bottom photo), on their way to the Church at Grand Pré in Nova Scotia.

For more on Rodrigue’s Saga of the Acadians, see the following stories: Early Oak Trees, The Aioli Dinner, Evangeline, Jimmy Domengeaux

Wendy

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12 comments:

  1. I have two small prints ("Last Novena for Gabriel" and "He-bert.."). I'm descended from Acadians and have always loved Mr. Rodrigue's work! Thanks for sharing the stories.

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  2. very interesting

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  3. I took my mother to Nova Scotia for her 65th birthday. We stood in front of the deportation cross and were silent as we stood on the same place that was the last soil they touched before landing in Louisiana. We visited Grand Pre and went to Breaux's Point and other places significant to all Acadians. It's a beautiful place and every Cajun should visit.

    Thank you for sharing the information and the pictures. Like everything else he creates, beautiful and touching.

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  4. Not all the Acadians went to Louisiana. I live in Northern Maine and I am a descendant of the Acadians also. Some of the group were forced to settle on the St. John River. Some are in Maine and some in New Brunswick.

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  5. My husband and I are both French Canadian and descendants of the Acadian people. Both families were the first settlers of Nova Scotia, and never left as they were hidden and protected by the local Indians. Generations later, most of my family had settled in New England, with most of his remaining in Nova Scotia.

    My mother-in-law shares stories about this period all the time, and would surely love to know about Mr. Rodrigue's work.

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  6. Interesting comments everyone --- Thank you for writing in.
    Wendy

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  7. very interesting post, Wendy. Great Blog. It was a pleasure meeting you. Terry Dunn

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  8. Thank you, Terry. George and I also enjoyed meeting you and Natasha in Santa Fe, and we look forward to seeing you both again!

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  9. Hello Wendy, this is an AWESOME site. I have a question. What is the difference between this and the "Saga of the Cajuns" which I have seen advertised as a 25 painting series. What is the history of that series? I was getting ready to buy some numbered prints of it but I want to verify with you that it is indeed a Rodrigue series and get some history on it.

    Thanks,

    Bryan

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  10. Hi Bryan, The series is the same; it's just that these fifteen are the ones George designated as the official 'Saga,' because the original paintings travel together throughout the state, representing the Acadian story.

    He chose these fifteen specifically to remain together, both in this story and as a collection.

    Many thanks for your comments and for reading. All best, Wendy

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  11. The writing on this pic is inaccurate. The wording makes it appear that it is two pics of the same group of girls. One may trust my credibility of my post because my mother Hilda Fremaux Gott is in the top pic( top row , far right). The top pic is a group of young ladies in 1932. Area cities in South Louisiana picked a young girl to represent their local hometown in Novia Scotia. In 1932,they left South Louisiana via train with Sen. Dudley J. Leblanc. Thirty years later, in 1962, the trek to Novia Scotia was renewed also with Sen. Dudley J. Leblanc as their sponsor. During both years, the party of young ladies stopped for a visit at the White House prior to their destination of Novia Scotia

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Anon. I greatly appreciate the clarification as well as the history. Thank you for this addition to the post.

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