Reagan, Bush, and Gorbachev: A Story

By the mid-1980s George Rodrigue had a significant national reputation as a fine artist. Ironically, although his paintings depicted the landscapes and people of South Louisiana, his work garnered little serious attention at home, where the locals associated him with festival posters and black trees.

Elsewhere in the country, however, his reputation flourished, particularly following the publication of the book The Cajuns of George Rodrigue in 1976 (Oxmoor House, Birmingham, Alabama), which attracted the attention of the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as First Lady Rosalyn Carter, who chose the book as an official Gift of State during President Jimmy Carter’s administration.

Furthermore, despite his protestations (see the post, Portraits: The Kingfish and Uncle Earl), George attracted attention as a portrait artist — specifically, an American portrait artist — his work viewed as naïve, a quality associated with an increasingly popular American genre, folk art.

In 1988 the National Republican Party (through the Assistant Secretary of Energy, Henson Moore) commissioned George Rodrigue to paint President Ronald Reagan. Because this was a more casual portrait, as opposed to the official and formal Presidential portrait, George had carte blanche when it came to design and approach.

He chose the theme “An American Hero,” because to him Ronald Reagan, the actor, the cowboy, and the President of the United States represented a specific American ideal. To prepare, he flew to the President’s ranch in California to photograph him on his horse. Little did he know that he would be one of two hundred photographers scheduled for shoots that day.

As President and Mrs. Reagan rode towards the waiting cameras, George dismayed. Reagan’s horse was not the proud stallion of our country’s leader, but rather looked ‘like an old mule, with a lazy gait and a drooping head.’ He returned home with several dozen disappointing shots (remember, this was long before digital photography).

As I’ve mentioned in other stories, George excels in what some might see as difficult or even impossible situations. In this case, the solution was simple. He poured through his old cowboy books (he has an amazing collection of source material on a wide variety of subjects), found a great picture of Gene Autry on his horse Champion, and replaced the singing cowboy’s head with Ronald Reagan’s.

The Republican Party leaders, as well as President and Mrs. Reagan were pleased with the work, and as a result arranged for George to present the painting to the President twice, during public ceremonies in New Orleans and in Baton Rouge. (pictured, Rodrigue with President Reagan in Baton Rouge; Patrick F. Taylor with President Reagan in New Orleans)

Following the New Orleans presentation, George noticed the painting still sitting on the stage long after the President’s departure, and so he loaded it into his van and headed to a friend’s house for dinner. Imagine his surprise when the Secret Service tracked him down with a phone call:

“Mr Rodrigue, do you have the President’s portrait? We are holding Air Force One.”

George raced in 5:00 traffic to the New Orleans airport and the waiting plane (and the waiting President). He drove directly to the airplane door, where the Secret Service loaded the canvas, and he watched from his van as, within minutes, the plane took off.

In May 1988, George Rodrigue presented an exhibition of his works, including the painting An American Hero, at the Summit Meeting in Moscow. As a companion piece to President Reagan’s portrait, he painted the President of the former Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. The paintings hung side by side at the Sovereign Center World Trade Center complex, along with ten other Rodrigue paintings, all borrowed from collectors.

The portraits of Reagan and Gorbachev caused controversy from the beginning. The KGB wanted to know,

“Why isn’t Gorbachev on a horse too? Why is he standing on the ground, as though begging?”

George explained that he painted Gorbachev as he described himself in his propaganda: “a man of the people.” His hand was not extended for help, but rather as a gesture of welcoming and goodwill.

And as far as the horse, George replied,

“I didn’t know that Gorbachev had a horse.”

The KGB responded,

“He doesn’t. We were hoping Reagan would give him a horse.”

(Fortunately they did not notice the Cajun artist’s little joke painted on Gorbachev’s head: he shaped the Soviet President’s famous birthmark like a crawfish).

The controversy continued as Soviet officials requested that George give the original painting to Gorbachev. He agreed, provided he could meet the Soviet President and present the painting in person. The KGB refused, insisting George give up the portrait. But George held his ground, and within a day the entire exhibition of paintings, including both the Reagan and Gorbachev portraits, disappeared. (pictured, George Rodrigue in Moscow with his painting Kiss Me, I’m Cajun)

The press, in Moscow for the Summit, picked up on the story with headlines such as “Soviets Lasso Artwork: Officials Seize Painting of President as Cowboy” (Associated Press), “Painting of Reagan as Cowboy Corralled by Soviet Authorities” (Los Angeles Times), “Kremlin Nixes Cajun Painter’s Gorby Portrait” (New Art Examiner), and “Rebel Cajun Painter” (The New Orleans Times-Picayune). The missing paintings, in fact, became the number one Associated Press story for three days in a row that May.

The extensive press surrounding the paintings’ disappearance embarrassed the Soviets, and within days the paintings reappeared on the wall as mysteriously as they vanished. George, anxious to leave town (and worried also because, with the exception of Gorbachev’s portrait, these works did not belong to him), made arrangements to return to Louisiana that day. However, the KGB issued him new departure papers, stipulating that he was to leave as soon as possible but that the paintings, all of them, were to remain in Moscow.

Once again excelling in a crisis, George came up with a plan. In the middle of the night, with the help of an ABC News crew, he removed the paintings from their stretchers and rolled them together. The news crew hid them in a beer cooler on Air Force Two, and within days George retrieved the paintings from their offices in Washington D.C.

Upon its return to Washington D.C., Reagan’s portrait hung first in the White House and later in the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, until Nancy Reagan donated it upon his death to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge in honor of Reagan supporter Lod Cook, where it hangs on public display in the Lod Cook Alumni Center. (LSU does loan it out on occasion, most recently to the Louisiana Governor’s Mansion, where it hangs today in the office of Governor Bobby Jindal.)

And what of the portrait of Gorbachev? Needless to say, George did not leave it in Moscow. He kept the work himself and occasionally hangs it in our home or loans it out for exhibition (especially if the Reagan painting also is on view).

(I first saw it in 1993 at George’s camp in Butte la Rose, Louisiana, where it hung over the bed in the guest room.)

Later in 1988 the Republican Party, specifically George’s friend Lee Atwater, called George for another favor. Vice President George H.W. Bush hoped the artist would paint his portrait as well.

At Bush’s request, George painted a casual portrait of the Vice President with his ten grandchildren.

He presented the painting to then President Bush during a private meeting in Los Angeles the following year, and it hung in the White House throughout his Presidency.

Not long after he finished the painting, Mrs. Bush’s aide called George at his studio in Lafayette, Louisiana:

“Mrs. Bush requests that you add her to the painting.”

It was with sincere regret that George declined. As I’ve repeated throughout these blogs, his paintings consist of strong designs, so that moving or changing any element destroys the ‘puzzle.’ He could not include Mrs. Bush in the finished painting without ruining his composition. He reluctantly admitted,

“There simply is no room.”

Today the painting of President George H.W. Bush with his ten grandchildren hangs in his personal office in his home in Houston, Texas. In 2007 he agreed to loan it for the first time for public display for the retrospective exhibition Blue Dog: The Art of George Rodrigue at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.

In closing, lest the Democrats out there worry that George Rodrigue is a die-hard Republican, please stand by. His painting of President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore calls for its own detailed story. That painting too resulted in controversy and adventure, and I will share the details with you sometime in the coming weeks.


6 thoughts on “Reagan, Bush, and Gorbachev: A Story

  1. Thank you for the factual account of what happened in Moscow. I first knew of the painting when I purchased a print @ the Republican Convention '88. I was drawn to this work primarily because it combined my interest in George's earlier depictions of Cajuns in conjunction with my appreciation for President Reagan. I had heard the rumors over the years, and now know "the rest of the story."

  2. Enjoyed reading this account and yes …. I was one of those Dems who was struggling with one of my favorite artists and all the Republican paintings – until I read the last paragraph – thnx!

  3. I am just reading this and I could not stop reading it (I also read it aloud to whomever was present!) I felt like I was in the middle of a James Bond movie with all the intrigue! I even burned my grilled cheese sandwich!!! Can't wait for the Clinton/Gore saga!!!!! GREAT!! Freda

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