The Louisiana Rousseau: The Legacy of George Rodrigue

What is the most recognizable image of Cajun culture today? Some may say “a boiled crab,” and it’s probably true. However, if we forget for a moment about taste buds and reach into the depth of our visual memory, the first image to emerge most likely will be that of the Blue Dog, still and mysterious, with the piercing stare of its unblinking yellow eyes.

FAMILY BUSINESS, acrylic on canvas, 2000. © Estate of George Rodrigue. 2000. © Estate of George Rodrigue.

New Iberia-born, internationally renowned artist George Rodrigue initially created the Blue Dog as an illustration for a ghost story to portray le loup-garou, a Cajun werewolf. As time went on, the Blue Dog transcended its humble beginnings and developed a bigger-than-life identity of its own.

Over the past two decades, it has made its way into billboards, posters and street signs, into Absolut Vodka and Xerox advertisements. The Blue Dog is featured in the inaugural portrait of President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore, included by the artist at Clinton’s personal request. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it became the image of the national campaign to raise funds for the disaster relief.

While the Blue Dog is Rodrigue’s most publicized image, it is not the only one that has achieved iconic status. Jolie Blonde, the golden-haired sweetheart from the 1920s song, has played an equally important role in promoting Cajun popular culture to the world, including such far-away places as Paris where it was exhibited at the prestigious exhibition at the Salon in 1978.

On Dec. 14, 2013, George Rodrigue died of lung cancer at the age of 69. He was eulogized as a great artist, educator, philanthropist and community activist. The George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts, founded in 2009, raised over $2.5 million for post-Katrina relief and provides scholarships for Louisiana students.

Rodrigue’s artistic legacy is celebrated in three year-long retrospective exhibitions which are running simultaneously at his studios in Lafayette and New Orleans, and in Carmel, Calif.

The exhibition in Lafayette features works from the artist’s own collection and from a few private collections. Painted at different times of his life, they offer a representative overview of the artist’s remarkable career which spans over 40 years. The show is a living testimony that Rodrigue’s legacy goes far beyond popular culture imagery, such as the Blue Dog and Jolie Blonde. His rich and diverse body of work includes landscapes, portraits and genre scenes on the subject of Cajun history and traditions.

Rodrigue’s endeavors in sculpture are exemplified in a small bronze piece titled Cajun Fisherman (1975.) However, to fully appreciate his talent as a sculptor one has to take a short drive to the Saloom Office Park to see his Longfellow Evangeline Monument, a 12-foot tall bronze sculpture featuring the poet reuniting Evangeline and Gabriel at the base of an oak tree.

LANDSCAPE WITH CABIN AND OAK TREE, oil on canvas, 1969. © Estate of George Rodrigue.

A recurrent theme in all Rodrigue’s works is life of the Cajun community which seems to be intrinsically connected with and expressed through Acadiana landscape. His images are reminiscent of folk art, with flat shapes, simplified lines and local colors. They also often convey a feeling of mystery or wonder, which prompted the French newspaper, Le Figaro, to dub the artist “the Louisiana Rousseau” when he exhibited at the Galerie Antena in Paris in 1980.

Rodrigue started painting at the age of 8 when he was bedridden for four months with polio. He majored in art at the University of Southwest Louisiana in Lafayette and then at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. Since 1969 he devoted himself fully to painting.

Rodrigue’s early works were pure landscapes, with the space dominated by huge, dark oaks trimmed in the black lace of Spanish moss. The sharp silhouette of the wispy moss hanging from the branches is one of their most distinctive features. Rodrigue always painted trees at a slightly tilted angle which allowed him to capture the light as it comes from underneath the foliage.

The palette of these landscapes is dark brown and green, as if painted with the soil of the land and the water of the bayou. Anyone who has visited Acadiana will experience an instant memory flashback when looking at these haunting, emotional images.

Ironically, the same qualities that make Rodrigue’s landscapes so powerful and authentic today were seen as faults by some critics when the artist first exhibited his work at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge in 1970. “His paintings are flat and drab rather than teeming with life. His bayou country is a shadowy, depressing place with none of the life and color that pulses there,” wrote Anne Price of The Advocate.

But there were other voices that expressed admiration and high regard for the young artist. Among them was Claude Kennard, director of the Beaumont Art Museum (today the Art Museum of Southeast Texas) under whose leadership Rodrigue’s one-man exhibition premiered in Beaumont in August of 1971. Commenting on the artist’s style, Kennard described his works as “austere and sober, limited in color but rich in range of hues, validly restrictive to the nature of the landscape of Lafayette parish and surrounding areas in South Louisiana and Southeast Texas…where white is exotic and sky minimal.”

Rodrigue eventually switched from landscapes to figures and portraits. Inspired by old photographs in his mother’s album, he started painting them by projecting the slides on canvas. Then he had an idea: how would these people look if they stepped from behind an oak tree? Before long, he developed his signature style portraits, which give an impression of a cut-and-paste image held together by the shape of the tree. The exhibition features a few examples of such portraits, including “A Couple of Local Boys” (1981), in which Rodrigue portrayed himself with poet, playwright and political consultant Gus Weil.

A COUPLE OF LOCAL BOYS, oil on canvas,1981. © Estate of George Rodrigue.

Rodrigue’s first painting that included human figures dates back to 1971. “The Aioli Dinner” is a large-scale (32 x 46 inches) canvas, now in the collection of Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. A later variation on the same theme, “Family Business,” (2000), is currently on view at the exhibition in Lafayette.

In these works Rodrigue refers to the old tradition of Creole Gourmet Societies which were popular in Acadiana in 1890s-1920s. Both paintings show a group of distinguished-looking middle-aged men seated around the table, each with his own wine bottle. They are gathered to enjoy a six-hour meal. In “The Aioli Dinner,” the sumptuous feast is taking place on a plantation, under the shade of magnificent oaks. The gender and class distinctions are underscored by the composition: the women who cooked the gourmet meal are portrayed standing in the back, barely visible, and the young men serving the dinner are respectfully standing behind the chairs of the formally dressed gentlemen.

In “Family Business,” everything is simplified and stripped of unessential details. The feast is moved indoors and the interior space is identified only by two widows on the flanking walls. There are no women, no waiters, only grave-looking, moustached men who are ceremoniously seated around the table. The palette is dominated by black and white: the men are wearing white shirts and black ties, with black bottles standing in front of them on the white tablecloth.

The only bright spot in the composition is the Blue Dog. Placed in the foreground, unproportionally large, it does not seem to belong to the same space as the people behind it. Its round yellow eyes hold a question. Is it about the story unveiling in the painting? Or about the artist’s odyssey since he finished “The Aioli Dinner”? Maybe it is a question about ourselves…

All his life Rodrigue popularized Cajun history and culture. Between 1985 and 1989, he painted “The Saga of the Acadians,” a series of fifteen works chronicling the Acadian journey from France to Nova Scotia to Louisiana. Five of these paintings are on view at the exhibition in Lafayette. Somber colors and static postures of the characters convey the sense of dignity and monumentality.

MACQUE CHOUX, from The Saga of the Acadians, 1985-89. © Estate of George Rodrigue.

Rodrigue’s accolades and distinctions are too numerous to be listed in this article. One especially impressive achievement is the Honorable Mention from the exhibition at the Salon of 1974 of the prestigious Société des Artistes Français in Paris, France, which he received for his painting “The Class of Marie Courrege.” Only five awards are presented each year: first and second place, and three honorable mentions. Among the few American artists to receive the same honor was John Singer Sargent who won an Honorable Mention for the portrait of his mentor, artist Carolus-Duran, at the Salon of 1879.

Rodrigue believed that all good art asks the same questions: “Who am I, who are you, what are we doing here, what is life about?” The artist often stated that these questions were in the eyes of the Blue Dog, who became the artist’s inseparable companion on the journey of life. However, other Rodrigue paintings also move us towards quiet reflection, whether it is the seductive Jolie Blonde, the faithful Evangeline, dancing Cajun couples or moss-covered old oaks. It is the invisible presence of the artist in his work which makes us ponder the mystery of life.

George Rodrigue’s Memorial Retrospective is on view at Rodrigue Studio in Lafayette, located at 1434 S. College Road, through January 2015.

Open hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and noon to 5 p.m., Saturday.

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Elena Ivanova
ISSUE Contributor

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