George Rodrigue: Painting Louisiana

Note:  Based on an essay scheduled for publication in an upcoming book* celebrating Louisiana’s bicentennial, published in April 2012 by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, this blog version includes added images, as well as links throughout, referring you to specific relevant posts and websites.

Born and raised in New Iberia, Louisiana, George Rodrigue (b. 1944) determined his future in art while sick with polio as a child.  His mother brought him paint-by-numbers, a 1950s invention, to ease his boredom.  Eight year-old Rodrigue used the paints and canvases, however, to paint not the suggested country lanes and Last Suppers, but rather fire trucks, monsters, and alligators.  Following a full recovery, he set his course on art and never wavered.
Seeking a formal art education, Rodrigue enrolled in 1962 at the University of Southwest Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette), where he studied Abstract Expressionism.  It was his project for Professor Calvin Harlan’s design class that proved most useful when he applied to art school.  His design book secured his acceptance to the prestigious Art Center College of Design (then located in Los Angeles; now in Pasadena), where Rodrigue studied not only the fundamentals of art such as figure drawing, but also graphic design, illustration, automotive design, and photography.  Most important, at Art Center Rodrigue studied for the first time with working artists, significantly Lorser Feitelson, the master of Hard Edge Painting.
(pictured, Pop Goes the Ads, a mixed media by Rodrigue, 1966 – click photo to enlarge-)
In California (1963-1967) Rodrigue also admired Pop Art when Andy Warhol premiered his Campbell’s Soup Cans at the Ferus Gallery.  Furthermore, the literal and figurative distance from south Louisiana influenced the young artist, who worried that his unique Cajun culture faded within a modern world of television and travel.  Unlike his Art Center classmates, who pursued careers in the art capital, New York City, Rodrigue returned home, using the hard edge and pop influences of California to paint the landscape and people of Louisiana.  Ultimately Rodrigue graphically interpreted his culture, coining a new phrase, “Cajun Artist.”
(pictured, Aioli Dinner by George Rodrigue, 1971, Collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art)
In 1974 Rodrigue won an Honorable Mention for his painting The Class of Marie Courrege at the historic Le Salon des Artistes in Paris, prompting a review from the French newspaper, Le Figaro, which dubbed him “America’s Rousseau.”  And in 1976 he wrote the first national publication on the Cajun culture, The Cajuns of George Rodrigue (Oxmoor House).  The National Endowment for the Arts gifted the book to Rosalind Carter, who chose it as an official White House Gift of State during the Carter Administration.
Rodrigue first painted what would become his most famous image, the Blue Dog, in 1984, imagined for a collection of ghost stories.  The book Bayou (Chris Segura, Inkwell Press) included forty Louisiana tales, including the loup-garou, a werewolf or ghost dog said to lurk in cemeteries and sugar cane fields.  As a boy, Rodrigue’s mother warned him, “If you’re not good today, the loup-garou will eat you tonight!”
(pictured, Watchdog, 1984, the first Blue Dog painting)
The artist invented a red-eyed, frightening image loosely based on photographs of his deceased studio dog, Tiffany.  He painted the loup-garou at night under a blue-moon sky, casting a blue-grey shade on the dog’s fur. 
Over the following ten years, the loup-garou developed into the iconic Blue Dog, an image that catapulted Rodrigue’s fame worldwide.  In 1992 the Wall Street Journal featured Rodrigue and his Blue Dog with an article on its front page, and in 1993 he joined artists such as Andy Warhol and Keith Haring in creating art for the international Absolut Art campaign.
(pictured, Absolut Rodrigue, 1993; related post “Blue Dog:  Out of Control, 1993-1995“)
In addition to numerous group shows, Rodrigue’s museum presence includes solo exhibitions in New Orleans, Atlanta, Chicago, Memphis, and Pensacola.  In 2012 the Amarillo Museum of Art hosts a blockbuster Rodrigue exhibition, followed by Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna Art Museum and the National Steinbeck Center (Salinas, California) in 2013.
Following more than $3 million raised for humanitarian and arts organizations in the wake of September 11th, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Rodrigue established in 2009 the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts, encouraging the use of art within all school curriculums and funding scholarships, classroom art supplies, and a variety of art educational programs.
In 2006 Rodrigue received the Lifetime Achievement Arts Award from the State of Louisiana Governor’s Office, soon after appointed the state’s official Artist Laureate; and in 2009 the University of Louisiana at Lafayette presented him with an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts.  In 2011 the Center for Louisiana Studies awarded him with the James William Rivers Prize, established “to honor persons who have contributed or rendered, recently or over the course of their careers, outstanding scholarly study, work, or teaching about the culture, history, ….and art of Louisiana or about its people.”  Also in 2011 the National Boy Scouts of America presented the artist with their highest honor, the Distinguished Eagle Award.
Today Rodrigue divides his time between New Orleans and Carmel, California.  For more by George Rodrigue, visit his website:
-Also this week, I hope you enjoy Judy Cooper, New Orleans Photographer, a new story for Gambit

*This essay also appears on the website KnowLA: the Digital Encyclopedia of Louisiana History and Culture and within the upcoming book The Bicentennial History of Art in Louisiana, a project edited by Michael Sartisky, Ph.D., President/Executive Director of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and J. Richard Gruber, Ph.D., Founding Director of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, scheduled for publication in April 2012 in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Louisiana’s statehood

Suggested Reading:
The Art of George Rodrigue.  Ginger Danto (Introduction), Michael Lewis (Preface).  Published by Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2003
Blue Dog Man.  George Rodrigue, David McAninch.  Published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang, New York, 1999
The Cajuns of George Rodrigue.  Paintings and Text by George Rodrigue.  Published by Oxmoor House, Birmingham, Alabama, 1976
George Rodrigue Prints:  A Catalogue Raisonne 1970-2007.  E. John Bullard (Foreword), Wendy Wolfe Rodrigue (Introduction).  Published by Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2008