Object Lesson: Surf Bathing, Grand Isle by John Genin

John Genin (French, active USA, 1830–1895), Surf Bathing, Grand Isle, Oil on canvas, ca. 1885–1890, 17 1/2 x 43 1/3 in., Gift of Sam Friedberg, 52.42

John Genin’s panoramic portrayal of a leisurely day at the beach in Surf Bathing, Grand Isle (c. 1885–1890) is a scene familiar to generations of Louisianians who have enjoyed carefree excursions to Louisiana’s only inhabited island in the Gulf of Mexico. Victorian-era vacationers wade into the waves beyond a shoreline strewn with driftwood among rustic summer cabins, changing rooms, and tents. Genin was a popular painter of portraits among New Orleans’s elites in the mid-nineteenth century when Grand Isle and other coastal resorts offered seasonal respite from the stifling heat in the city and yellow-fever plagues.

Here are five facts about the artist and the location that inspired this painting.

Grand Isle is a barrier island measuring approximately six square miles with a population of 1,541 residents as of the 2000 Census. In summer months, an influx of visitors can swell the count to more than 20,000. Fishing is one of the main recreational draws, and more than 280 species inhabit the surrounding saltwater. The largest event of the year is the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo, the oldest continually operating fishing tournament in the United States, established in 1928. Though initially limited to tarpon, the event now offers awards for the weightiest catches of jewfish, tripletail, cobia, bonito, jackfish, sheepshead, dolphin, Spanish mackerel, king mackerel, redfish, and speckled trout. By 1951 prizes included a Plymouth four-door sedan, a 32-piece silver set, 17 rods and reels, tools, a savings bond, three sets of automobile tires, a lawnmower, eight outboard motors, a .22 caliber rifle, an aquaplane, deck chairs, a fishing suit, and standard trophies.

Birding is another popular pastime at Grand Isle. The island is an essential stop for bird migrations across the Gulf of Mexico in spring and fall. More than 168 species were recorded during the annual Migratory Bird Festival in April 2019, and for more than nine months of the year at least 100 species are regularly spotted. Louisiana’s coastal zone remains one of the most ecologically dynamic places in the world. It remains the seventh largest deltaic system on the planet, and it accounts for nearly forty percent of all the estuarine marshes in the lower 48 states. The ecosystem allows for rich habitat to support wading birds, waterfowl, raptors, and shorebirds.

Coastal Louisiana is experiencing the most dramatic land loss in the world due to sea-level rise and coastal erosion. According to scientific measurements, the state loses the equivalent of a football field of wetlands every 100 minutes, and more than 2,200 square miles of land have disappeared since the 1930s. Grand Isle has suffered repeated hurricane damage since its earliest inhabitation. Since 1877, the community has been affected by a hurricane or tropical storm every 2.68 years with a direct hit every 7.88 years. A $6.5 million grant project currently underway to preserve Grand Isle’s shoreline includes seventeen rock jetties aimed at retaining sand dunes and securing sediment.

Grand Isle was the setting for the acclaimed early feminist novel The Awakening by Kate Chopin, published in 1899. The protagonist, Edna Pontellier, an upper-class wife and mother from New Orleans, struggles with inner fulfillment and societal strictures for women as her family spends a summer season at the beach. She becomes infatuated with fellow vacationer Robert Lebrun, a flirtatious playboy, and jealous of Mademoiselle Reisz, a high-spirited single woman, all while becoming increasingly disillusioned with the limitations of her matronly role. After returning to the city, Edna becomes more unconventional, taking up painting and sketching and ignoring household and social duties, much to the distress of her husband. Edna moves out of the house, supports herself as an artist, and has an affair with a notorious womanizer. When Robert reappears in her life months later, Edna becomes crushed by unrequited love and ultimately returns to Grand Isle where she commits suicide by drowning. At the time of its debut, Chopin’s book was criticized for its unapologetic portrayal of a woman’s emotional, sexual, and spiritual awakening. During the era of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and ’70s it was rediscovered and promoted by scholars as a groundbreaking work of female self-discovery.

Born in Lyons, France, in 1830, John Genin maintained a binational lifestyle, traveling between France and the United States for most of his career as a painter.  He made the francophone city of New Orleans his primary home but frequent journeys to Paris show the evolving influence of French academic painting on his work, and the early tutelage of Léon Bonnat, a professor at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. The first record of Genin’s residency in New Orleans was noted in the census of 1860 in which “Johanny Genin,” age 30, was listed. He produced historical, genre, and landscape paintings, but portraiture, particularly for prominent families in New Orleans, became his mainstay. Genin was praised for his sensitive depictions of women, children, and the elderly, but the number of paintings that can be attributed to him today is relatively small. Another painting by Genin in NOMA’s permanent collection is Pontchartrain Beach (c. 1870).

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