Early Oak Trees and a Regrettable Self-Portrait

It was on the long drives back from The Art Center College of Design in California that George Rodrigue developed his style. He’d been thinking about it for some time – about how different South Louisiana is from other places, as well as the eighteen hundred miles of cities and countryside and Americans he passed along the way.

From Los Angeles he drove Route 66, a two-lane highway that hugged the terrain, making every hill and gulley and stretch of flat land a part of the experience. And at Amarillo he broke off onto even smaller roads, traversing seven hundred miles across Texas before crossing the Sabine River and entering Louisiana.

Today, with our straight, cut-through-the-mountains highways, along with our big engines and high speed limits, it’s a three-day drive with time for several good nights’ rest in between. In the mid-1960s, however, it was a three-day drive non-stop.

Traveling alone, George had plenty of time to think….and to look. Its beautiful hill country aside, Texas is defined by its large stretches of flat land and even more so by its big sky. After many hours crossing that land and seeing that sky, George was struck by the change as he entered Louisiana. Almost immediately, it seemed to him, the sky was small. The land is flat, even sinking in spots, and there are no hills or mountains. Rather, massive oaks block the sky. The road is closed in, hidden between the trees, and the sky is small, visible in the distance, underneath the dark branches.

The more George thought about this, the more he realized how unique this vantage point is to his state. He began to research Louisiana paintings, particularly landscapes and other outdoor scenes, with trips to the Louisiana State Museum at the Cabildo, as well as the New Orleans Museum of Art. What he found was that artists painted Louisiana in a European tradition. Most paintings are two-thirds sky, with small trees and streams and cabins and cows at the bottom. Nearly every canvas shows Louisiana from a bird’s eye view. The few, such as Drysdale and Heldner, who obviously were standing on the ground when they conceived their compositions, captured Louisiana with an impressionist-type idealism.

But fresh from art school, George had Pop and hard edges and strong design on his mind. He was never a plein air painter. Although he photographed thousands of scenes of the Louisiana countryside, it was the tree and its relationship to its surroundings that stood out to him. Eventually photography would become an indispensible part of his Cajun paintings, however for the tree, the camera was an abstract tool that drove home to him the importance of this symbol and shape. (We were at a book signing recently and someone asked George which oak tree was in the painting, The Baton Rouge Oak, (2009, 60×48, pictured below), and they seemed a bit disappointed that it’s just a title. George has never painted an oak tree from a photograph in his life — nor has he ever painted one particular tree.)

His first landscapes included other elements, such as small figures and cabins. However, he quickly dropped those in favor of the tree by itself. He broke his canvas down into three elements — tree, ground, and sky — and he found that the combinations were endless. For three years, from 1968 to late 1971 (when he completed the Aioli Dinner, his first painting with people….and certainly worthy of its own post), George painted hundreds of these landscapes. His style became well-defined, setting the ground work for the Cajun paintings to come (see the links under “Popular Musings” to the right of this post), and also for a later strong shape, the Blue Dog.

He pushed the oak tree to the front of the canvas and cut it off at the top so that the light shined from underneath the tree and formed an interesting shape of its own between the bottom branches and the ground. The paintings were problems, and solving those problems consumed him. For George, although the oak tree in his works always will symbolize South Louisiana, he didn’t see a tree at all. He saw (and sees) shapes. (Pictured: 1970, 1980, 2006, 2009)

This direction was very exciting for him. He was a young man in his early twenties, and he’d already discovered a completely unique path within one of the oldest and most traditional painting genres. Even today when he speaks to students, he often recalls a lecture from art school. A professor explained that art is like a yardstick. On one end is Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. On the other end is Agnes Martin and Minimalism (or solid white paint covering a canvas). To find his or her way, an artist must find a spot on that yardstick and go up. It’s something George did with his landscapes, again with the Cajuns, again with the Blue Dog, and again with series such as Hurricanes and Bodies and his recent mixed media works on chrome.

In the beginning, he hoped for enough luck to find his own direction just one time. But once he dropped his inhibitions and stopped caring about the opinions of critics and neighbors and friends (and wives!), he created only new things, uninfluenced not only by the public, but also by the art world —-by styles and labels, by what’s happening in New York or Art Basel, by what’s happening anywhere other than inside his own head.

With one exception…

George was unprepared for the negative hometown reaction to his landscapes. Most locals entered his gallery on Duclos Street (and later Pinhook Road – pictured below) in Lafayette, Louisiana with skepticism. Why are your paintings so dark? Everything looks the same. Can’t you paint anything else?

And in response to his prices ($100 on average): You’re never going to get that kind of money for those paintings.

Worse, after a cousin who worked at the Old State Capitol in Baton Rouge managed to get him a show, the exhibition of seventy Rodrigue landscapes prompted George’s first newspaper review, a full page in the Sunday Advocate, with the headline: Painter Makes Bayou Country Dreary, Monotonous Place. (See the post “Museums and Critics” ).

To combat the criticism, young George painted his self-portrait.

He never offered it for sale. Rather, he propped it up in the corner of his gallery and motioned to it anytime he thought it might boost his credibility. And sure enough, as recently as the New Orleans Museum of Art’s Rodrigue exhibition last year, where it hung in a room filled with landscapes from the same period, he heard people say,

“Man, he really can paint.”

I heard them too, and I felt George’s frustration and imagined what it must have been like to have broken the mold in landscape painting and yet to be redeemed by something he saw as ordinary. He resented it, and he’s always disliked this early self-portrait (1971), so different from the hundreds of portraits he would paint over the years (see the links under “Portraits” to the right of this post), and yet still prized by many as his best. (pictured: George’s son Jacques and a local TV news cameraman at NOMA, March 2008)

George’s success provides him the freedom to paint when and what he wants most of the time. There have been periods, however, that he’s felt chained to his easel. The mid-late 1980s come to mind, when he spent countless hours painting family portraits (Aunt Lucy wants a red dress, make Mama look younger, you forgot to add the family cat…), but the money was good, and there are times when paying the bills overrides, well, almost everything.

Even today, in the slow summer months or during the current economy (or following a major real estate purchase), I see him compromising that freedom, and I hear him grumble as he heads back to the studio to finish a donation for a friend’s foundation, a cover for a book of fiction, and a ballet dancer (the three projects currently on his easel). These are the times that the end result – whether it be promoting a worthwhile cause, pleasing a friend, or, frankly, because the money will pay for an old building’s new air conditioning system — means more than the art. These are the times that painting becomes work.

He still puts his all into it (and I know he’s glad to have the work, even though it’s not his favorite way to create), and, unlike that early self-portrait, these current projects produce rewarding results beyond the art that make it all worthwhile. He gets through them so that he can get back to painting for himself, just like one makes it through a difficult work week, knowing that Friday afternoon is waiting at the end.

As we drove back from Shreveport and the latest book signing Monday night, he started talking about his ideas, and yesterday, as he finished the last of his commissions, he ordered canvas. He’ll be painting obsessively and unreservedly by the weekend, and he’ll have a hard time breaking away when we head to New York and more book events next week.


For more Rodrigue landscapes, both early and recent, visit the posts Oil Paint or Acrylic? and Blue Dog: The Dark Period

7 thoughts on “Early Oak Trees and a Regrettable Self-Portrait

  1. Hello Mrs.Wendy,

    My husband and i and our little girl came to the book signing when you were here in Shreveport. Thank you both for coming! Our little girl had the red glitter shoes and got bashful so we didn't ask to take a picture! We wish we had! I am an artist myself. I am inspired by how prolific he is! It was so nice to meet you both!! Kate Barnwell Carpenter

  2. Thank you for your blogs Wendy. It is wonderful to read your stories of George's inspirations for his absolutly beautiful artwork. The military brought us to Louisiana 6 years ago and we have since made it our home. I couldn't agree with you both more that there is no other place quite like Louisiana.

    I found out late about the book signing Monday night here in Shreveport and since I was engrossed in a research paper, my wonderful daughter came out to meet you both and pick up a copy of the new book. She thoroughly enjoyed the experience and we both love the book. Although it is intended for young children, the artwork alone will have me looking at it many times for many years to come.

    Thank you again and we hope to see you in Shreveport again as well as visit Lafayette very soon!

    Angela Mann

  3. wow, the self portrait from 1971, is that a painting or a photograh, if it is a painting, I'm interested to know what caused the extreme change in style of painting?

  4. Hi Anon. The self-portrait is a painting, not a photograph. Rodrigue only painted it to prove to a doubting public (which at the time thought he could only paint oak trees) what he could paint.

    This was never his preferred style, and there is only this one painting. He saw it as ordinary, without anything unique to the way it's rendered. He saw it as a means to pleasing the public, rather than a reflection of his own vision. In short, he didn't like it. And to this day, he is ashamed of this portrait and has a hard time looking at it.

    When he began painting portraits soon afterwards, he developed a style more personal and unique to him, a style he's proud to call his own, a style like no one else's, and recognizable (unlike this portrait) as 'Rodrigue.'

    Thank you for your inquiry-

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