Since the early 1970s George Rodrigue set out to preserve on his canvas Louisiana’s Cajun heritage. Following his return to New Iberia from art school in Los Angeles, he noticed dramatic changes in the southwest parishes, and he feared that the Cajuns, his people, faded quickly as a distinct culture within America.
Growing up, he remembers residents traveling by horse and buggy in towns like Carencro, Erath, Scott, and other areas around Lafayette, shopping at small town grocery stores. But by the mid-1960s he saw only cars.
The young artist witnessed the disappearance of family dance halls, where generations, from grandparents to great-grandchildren, gathered on Saturday nights, and where musicians like accordion player Iry LeJeune entertained the crowds. (See Rodrigue’s painting of LeJeune here-)
“The whole French language and influence drifted away,” explains Rodrigue. “French used to be the dominant language at the stores on downtown Jefferson Street in Lafayette. Television and other outside factors sparked a basic eroding of the Cajun culture.”
Using symbolism, Rodrigue painted his people without connection to time. His Louisiana oak tree, pushed to the front of his canvas, protects and frames his figures, trapping them within a pre-modernized culture. Instead of standing in shadow, the Cajuns glow with an interior light, timeless symbols of days and customs forever gone.
-click photo to enlarge-
In Farmer’s Market(1984, oil on canvas), for example, farmers and fishermen offer their fresh produce and seafood beneath the trees in pre-grocery store Acadiana. The figures stand framed by the background, locked into bushes and oaks, unable to move without destroying Rodrigue’s complex, specific design. The Cajuns become part of a puzzle, pieced together with strong positive shapes formed between and beneath the trees, defining not only a canvas world, but also a slice of Louisiana.
“I tried to capture the Cajun people in their home life, workspace, hunting and fishing, and their participation in fairs and festivals throughout the small towns. Nobody else was doing that — not from the region, nor outside of it.” – G.R.
In many of his Cajun paintings, such as the Aioli Dinner and the Mamou Riding Academy, Rodrigue began with early photographs, designing Louisiana’s landscape around the figures. (Click on the painting titles above to see those images and photos-).
However, in Farmer’s Market he fabricated a scene entirely from his imagination, staging friends and family in costumes in the backyard of his Lafayette home and gallery.
Diane Bernard Keogh, who works today at Rodrigue’s gallery, poses as a shopper, distinct from the farmers in her traditional black dress. Her presence too is symbolic, as an Evangeline figure, the Cajun heroine from Longfellow’s poem. (Rodrigue painted Diane as Evangeline many times; for the images and history, visit here-)
Finally, it’s interesting to note that George Rodrigue painted his Farmer’s Market the same year he painted his first Blue Dog, an image illustrating a book of Louisiana ghost stories, celebrating the World’s Fair held in New Orleans in 1984.
The style of the two paintings is the same, as the loup-garou sits like a person before a haunted red house, its figure framed by the surrounding shapes. (Read the full story in the post “Blue Dog In the Beginning.”)
This began many years of Cajun-Blue Dog crossover on Rodrigue’s canvas, as he added this distinct dog-like shape to his Evangelines and Oak Trees, not yet realizing that he too, like his community, would change forever.
-Please join me on facebook for more paintings and discussion
-I also write a weekly blog for the New Orleans newspaper Gambit, linked here