The Secret of Pirate Lafitte’s Gold

“O’er the glad waters of the dark blue sea,
Our thoughts as boundless, and our souls as free,
Far as the breeze can hear, the billows foam,
Survey our empire and behold our home!” 

–Lord Byron, 1814, The Corsair

By 1974 George Rodrigue pursued a unique, self-invented style of American genre painting, typified by hard edges and strong designs.  He interpreted the landscapes and legends of the Cajun culture with expressive symbolism.  His oak trees are abstract shapes forming the uppermost border of a bright sky, reinforcing positive shapes and patterns in his stylized canvas world.
The mysterious woman in The Secret of Pirate Lafitte’s Gold (1974, 30×36) guards a treasure hidden within the hollow of the tree.  Conflicting tales of Jean Lafitte and his gold abound, and for years treasure hunters dug up islands and, at one point, drained a lake, in search of the booty.
Far from the terrifying reputation of today’s pirates, Jean Lafitte resembles in legend (forgive me) Jack Sparrow, in his relentless pursuit of treasure, freedom, and the ‘winning side.’  He gained a reputation beyond thief and smuggler, known for sparing the lives of his captives and, most famously, ensuring Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans.

(pictured, In Search of the Gold of Jean Lafitte, circa 1983; notice Chef John Folse’s famous restaurant, now burned, in the background; the painting currently hangs at Folse’s Lafitte’s Landing Restaurant at Bittersweet Plantation)

For their allegiance and assistance, Lafitte and his men received full pardons and generous payment, a treasure, according to a legend recounted by fishermen and trappers since the early 1900s, still buried within a large oak tree at the mouth of the Atchafalaya River. 
Lafitte’s followers, however, protected the gold.  As the pirates died, their ghosts remained.  It was from this legend that Rodrigue fabricated his image, a female spirit formed from his imagination, still guarding the oak.
According to family legend, George Rodrigue’s Uncle Boutte, who married his mother’s sister, a Courrege, was a direct descendant of Pirate Lafitte.  The family spoke of the treasure often when George was a child in New Iberia. 

“Growing up I remember the Bouttes complaining that by the time they find Lafitte’s gold there will be so many heirs that nobody will get much of anything.” – G.R.

In 1984 George addressed the legend again with A Sea Chest of Secrets (40×30), painted for the book Bayou, a collection of ghost stories that also includes the loup-garou, the first Blue Dog.
The painting illustrates three periods in time.  Lafitte, still living, sits upon his gold at the edge of the river.  Mid-canvas, his grave, an above ground tomb, hides the gold beneath the same tree (although, according to popular accounts, he was wounded during a battle and buried at sea).  The top of the painting reveals no sign of Lafitte, his tomb, or the gold, reinforcing the mystery of both the pirate’s fate and that of his treasure.
Throughout the painting, the river and sky blend as one, a typical Rodrigue artifice that further blurs both the passage of time and the ambiguity of a legend.
-please join me on facebook for more paintings, photographs and stories

-also this week, a tribute to Pablo Picasso, featuring Rodrigue’s guitar-collage inspired by the Modern master, linked here for Gambit’s Blog of New Orleans

8 thoughts on “The Secret of Pirate Lafitte’s Gold

  1. I continue to marvel not only at George's work and its essential cajunness and uniqueness, but at the depth of Cajun culture itself. Fascinating. By they way, I like the way the water in the upper part of the painting morphs into ghost-like figures. And the grave reminds me of so many in the St. Martinville Cemetary where many of my Durand relatives are buried. Thanks.

  2. Hi Anon-

    Sorry to be the bearer of bad news; but no calendar for 2012. The good news, however, is that we skipped a year in order to change publishers and update the calendar with a fresher look. We’ll have a wall calendar with Rizzoli out for 2013, and both a wall and engagement calendar for 2014.

    Thank you for your inquiry –

  3. Agree with anonymous…very sad to hear no calendar for 2012. No engagement calendar until 2014??? Very disappointed…

  4. My apologies again, Anon. Rizzoli had no interest in doing an engagement calendar immediately, so we are stuck regarding 2013. And, due to other major projects on my plate, I just can’t tackle it on my own right now – which was the only alternative. I am, however, encouraged to see this enthusiasm for the next one!

  5. Hi Elizabeth- It's good to hear from you! There are lots of stories about your ancestors within this blog. Several are listed under the topic EARLY YEARS AND FAMILY, which you'll find in the list to right of this story.

    There's quite a bit of history also in the new book, "The Other Side of the Painting," which comes out October 1. It's available at your favorite bookstore or on-line at amazon. Or, if you're in the New Iberia area, George will be signing at Books Along the Teche on Oct. 20 at 4:00 p.m. Best regards, Wendy

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