On Exhibit: WBR Museum’s ‘Evangeline: Evolution of an Icon’

François Gaudet, “Evangeline with Hair Net,” 2019, screen print. Photo courtesy West Baton Rouge Museum

‘This is the forest primeval…” So begins the mythic prelude to the epic Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie, published in 1847 to become one of the best-selling poems by one of the most beloved poets of the age—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Based on true stories he heard from fabulist friends like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Longfellow’s fictional tale tells of star-crossed Acadian lovers separated in Nova Scotia by the Great Upheaval, an event which sees his heroine exiled into a decades-long, cross-country search for her lost fiancé. Eventually, she finds her way to St. Martin Parish, the modern-day home of many Cajun Louisianans, where a figure from her past gives her yet one more clue to her beloved’s location, and sets off her journey again. 

From now through October, the West Baton Rouge Museum honors the continued legacy of Louisiana’s most famous literary lady with “Evangeline: Evolution of an Icon.” There, guests can step into the story via art by Canadian and Louisiana creators (including a lesser-known Evangeline series by Blue Dog painter George Rodrigue), branded artifacts, and even comic books, all situated amongst the 60 or so unique items inspired by Evangeline and her influence on Cajun identity. 

“In 2019, two of our staff members traveled to New Brunswick for the Le Congrès Mondial Acadien, which is a festival of Acadian and Cajun culture and history held every five years,” says co-curator Lauren Hawthorne. “There they met Canadian artist Rémi Belliveau, and found that both Canadians and Louisianans have a great fondness for the Acadian heroine. Quickly, the idea of a collaborative exhibit featuring Evangeline was born.”

With the help of guest curator Elizabeth Weinstein, the museum especially wanted to highlight the rarity and longevity of a female hero in an American mythos so saturated with brawny Daniel Boones and John Henrys.

“I’m sure some of our younger visitors have never even heard of Evangeline, let alone read the epic poem by Longfellow,” says Hawthorne. “Some may be surprised to hear the story about one of the few epic heroines in literature.”

And more tales are on the way. In July, look out for a poetry reading, “Evangeline and Her Sisters,” with featured artists Melissa Bonin and Darrell Bourque, as well as an August 15 lecture, “Evangeline: Myth and Maiden,” with writer and professor Elista Istre—all in memory of this “Tale of Love in Acadie, home of the happy.”