Charles Durand, a sugar cane farmer, planted Oak and Pine Alley, a magnificent stretch of trees in St. Martinville, Louisiana, two hundred years ago.
The setting became the backdrop for a famous story about Durand’s daughters, whose father, in honor of their wedding, filled the oaks with spiders and coated their large webs with golden dust.
George Rodrigue painted The Cajun Bride of Oak Alley based on this story. By her solitary stance, however, she also references Longfellow’s Evangeline, as though waiting for her lover, her Gabriel, beneath the St. Martinville oaks. Typical of Rodrigue’s Cajun figures, the bride is timeless, a ghost not shadowed beneath the tree as one would expect, but rather luminous.
He rendered her this way, glowing from within, not only because it is her wedding day, but also because she shines with an anomalous American sub-culture, the Cajuns. She faces the alley, her back to the Bayou Teche. It appears that she is cut out and pasted onto the oak tree, trapped within Louisiana, and forever captured by both a magical story and a romantic painter.
As a young man, George Rodrigue was familiar with the wedding story of Durand’s daughters, and he sought out the alley for further inspiration.
In the painting, Rodrigue pushes his oak tree to the front of the canvas, cutting it off at the top. As a result, the light shines from beneath the branches, much like it does in the early photograph. He paints the bride as though she emerged from behind the tree, standing locked within this symbol of south Louisiana.
From Memories of St. Martinville by Charles Larroque (1999, Pelican Publishing):
“Oak and Pine Alley was planted by the slaves of Charles Jerome Durand around 1829. The three-mile alley leading from the Bayou Teche to Durand’s house was a veritable landmark, leaving no doubt as to the social position of the property owner. Like the sugarcane he planted, Durand’s imagination knew no bounds. The plantation family was awakened each morning by servants spraying perfumed mists. After baths in scented waters, daily routines began with promenades in gold-ornamented carriages rivaling even those of Versailles.
“In 1850, on the occasion of the simultaneous weddings of his two daughters, Durand’s slaves decorated the arboreal alley in a manner befitting his most eccentric nature. Prolific web-spinning spiders were brought in (some say from the nearby Atchafalaya Basin, others say from as far away as China) and were released in the trees to go about their arachnidan business. Then slaves went to their task of coating the dewy, billowing webs with gold and silver dust blown from bellows. And under this splendidly shimmering canopy proceeded the ethereal promenade of the wedding party and its two thousand guests.”
Durand’s ancestors help preserve the story today. Gary Reed, Rodrigue’s Catholic High School (New Iberia) classmate, writes,
“My mother was a Durand from St. Martinville, and Charles Durand was my great, great… grandfather. He married twice and had thirteen children. Every time I go home to New Iberia, I take a trip back in time to Oak and Pine Alley, also visiting Grandfather’s grave in the St. Martinville Cemetery. My mother and father are buried very close to him.”
By the mid-1970s George Rodrigue spent his days scouting for subjects and his nights painting the Cajun culture. He concentrated on area traditions, such as The Aioli Dinner, famous locations such as Broussard’s Barber Shop, and legendary figures such as Jolie Blonde.
He quizzed his mother, scanned her photo albums, and asked local characters about their favorite tales, following leads to obscure locations throughout southwest Louisiana. It was this quest that brought him to Oak and Pine Alley, resulting in a classic image of this enchanting tale.