Saints on the Bayou

“As I grow older, my mind expands. I suspend reality on my canvas with greater confidence, exploring not just the trees and grass, but also the mysterious and the mystical.”-George Rodrigue, 2012

(Saints on the Bayou, 2009 by George Rodrigue, now available as a fine art print; click the photo to enlarge this beautiful late landscape, painted on canvas with water-based oil, 15×30 inches)

From his earliest Landscapes and throughout his paintings of Cajuns, Blue Dogs, and the late figurative works, Bodies, George incorporated his fascination with Louisiana’s cemeteries into his artwork.

Along with shrimp boats and oak trees, these “Cities of the Dead” were among his first subjects once he “got serious and abandoned any thoughts of a real job” (he used to say)— dedicating his life to painting.

(pictured, Untitled, 1971 by George Rodrigue, 24×12 inches, oil on canvas; click photo to enlarge-)

“The tombs seem to float above the ground to reveal the relationship between living and dead, states which are not that different —at least to the Cajuns, who really do live with the dead.”— George Rodrigue, The Cajuns of George Rodrigue (Oxmoor House, 1976).

This interest in tombs transitioned easily within the Blue Dog Series.  The first Blue Dog painting, in fact, includes tomb-like stepping stones, referencing the loup-garou, a mythical Cajun ghost dog or werewolf said to lurk in cemeteries.

(pictured, the first Blue Dog painting, Watch Dog, 1984 by George Rodrigue, 40×30 inches, oil on canvas, full story here-)

In one of his last paintings, He Stopped Loving Her Today, George again visits this motif:

“I wanted to paint a tribute to George Jones,” he explained.  “I’ve loved this song for thirty years, and even though I’ve painted the Blue Dog before on tombs, this one is particularly special, because I reference the woman he loves.  Her hat is a remembrance alongside his grave.”  Read more

(pictured, He Stopped Loving Her Today, 2013 by George Rodrigue, 60×40 inches, acrylic on canvas; click photo to enlarge-)

George’s parents were the youngest of a combined twenty-four siblings.  As a result, the young artist grew up attending funerals.  He recalled his mother, devout in her Catholicism, white-washing the tombs of her parents on All Saints Day in his hometown of New Iberia, Louisiana, and he often helped his father in the family business, “Rodrigue’s Portable Concrete Burial Vaults.”

South Louisiana’s recurrent flash floods occasionally caused problems, and in some cases the tombs floated from their plots.  Wearing rubber waders and carrying a sledgehammer, young George knocked the corners from the floating tombs, sinking them for good.

“I call this painting A Safe Place Forever” (1984, pictured above), explained George.  “When I was a child, a flood swept through the great Atchafalaya basin, carrying with it everything that wasn’t nailed down or buried (and you can’t bury much in the swampy bayou).”

 “When the waters receded, I was among the first to discover a large stone casket cradled in the branches of a huge oak tree.  The people in the parish took this as a fearful omen, and so there the tomb stayed for many weeks, haunting us from its perch.”

(pictured above, Spirits in the Trees, 1992 by George Rodrigue, 33×23 inches, original silkscreen edition of 85; story here-)

(pictured above, A Sea Chest of Secrets (Pirate Jean Lafitte), 1984 by George Rodrigue; oil on canvas, 40×30 inches; story here-)

Throughout his career, George explored the supernatural in his artwork.  He painted the Cajunsas though they are ghosts, floating, often without feet, and yet locked into the landscape and framed by the trees.  Cut off at the top, the near-black oak creates interesting shapes beneath its branches.  The small bright sky represents the hope of a displaced people.

(pictured, The Day We Told Tee Coon Good-bye, 1976 by George Rodrigue, 24×36 inches, oil on canvas; click photo to enlarge-)

Although they live in what should be darkness beneath the trees, Rodrigue’s figures glow from the inside, illuminated by their spirits and culture.  They are timeless, mysterious and otherworldly.

In the case of Walking After Midnight (2004, pictured above), George combined a photograph he took at voodoo queen Marie Laveau’s tomb at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 in New Orleans, with a photograph he took of me, staged before a solid backcloth within his California studio.  In this highly structured design, he added his signature oak tree, balancing the composition for both his original painting and, ultimately, the large-scale print currently on view within “Louisiana Graveyards.”

The painting, as with most of the Bodies canvases, consists of a flesh-toned, natural nude figure on a black and white background.  This enabled George to manipulate the colors and saturation in his computer before printing the final artwork.  The result is some fifty unique images from the Bodies Series on canvas, paper, and metal, ranging in date from 2003 to 2013 — many of which reference cemeteries.

“I try to show that the tombs and the people are very much alike,” explained George.  “They both are suspended.  They both are painted the same.  They both have the same texture, and they both are locked in South Louisiana.”  

*Saints on the Bayou (2009), pictured at the top of this post, is available as a fine art silkscreen, issued November 2015; estate-stamped edition of 250; contact Rodrigue Studio or email for details-

-pictured above: “Grotto on Rampart Street,” photograph by George Rodrigue, 2002-

-pictured throughout this post:  selections from “Louisiana Graveyards,” a unique exhibition featuring original Rodrigue paintings from 1971-2013, on view through December 19th, 2015 at Rodrigue Studio, New Orleans; details here

-please join me, along with George’s sons André and Jacques, at Rodrigue Studio New Orleans for a reception honoring George Rodrigue and these unique works;  Thursday, December 3rd, 6-8 p.m. RSVP and more information- or (504) 324-9614

-meet Jacques Rodrigue and Mallory Page Rodrigue, son and daughter-in-law of artist George Rodrigue, signing and presenting two new books — Rodrigue:  The Sanders Collection and The Alchemy Never Starts or Never Stops — at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge this Saturday, October 31st, 3:00 p.m.  Details here

-see the links under “Rodrigue News” at the upper right of this post for a listing of current museum and gallery exhibitions featuring the art of George Rodrigue-