“Paintings take on a life of their own, long after the artist is gone.”George Rodrigue, from my journal.
As a young Cajun man of twenty-seven living in Lafayette, Louisiana, George Rodrigue (1944-2013) chose to express his culture’s pride in their adopted American homeland in a most unusual way. His painting of Independence Day illustrates not the signing of the Declaration of Independence, nor fireworks, nor portraits of the American statesmen or Founding Fathers who voted into law our country’s freedom from Great Britain in 1776.
Instead, George Rodrigue found inspiration within a small black and white photograph from his mother’s album, reflecting images from Marie Courrege Rodrigue’s youth in southwest Louisiana during the 1920s. He studied the photo at great length and considered his statement, fabricating a scene in which to place the figures in a true, yet surreal, blend of Americana with Acadiana, of American with Cajun.
We could, if we require the story, take the scene literally, as a queen and her maids, according to the words George wrote, in both English and French, in his landmark book, The Cajuns of George Rodrigue (Oxmoor House, 1976).
George’s painting, however, holds far more significance than a reflection of a costumed celebration. He expresses this also within his text, stating,
“I think the Cajuns need a feeling of Americana and need to show this feeling in everything they do, although their ideas, customs, and traditions are European.”
As a woman viewing this painting precisely fifty years after George painted it, I see not a festival scene, but rather a powerful expression of contemporary womanhood, a feminine vision –pretty, soft, regal, strong– flanked by female soldiers wearing pants, holding determined expressions, and saluting with respect. These women are…
“…struggling and fighting against the elements,” wrote George, “and fighting to maintain the binding ties of their traditions and culture.”
Like the Statue of Liberty, our central figure, from a family of immigrants, is embraced by her new country. She stands wrapped within its flag, some 200 years after Le Grand Derangement of 1755, when the British forcefully deported the Acadians from Nova Scotia. Yet she must know that where there is potential and equality on paper, there is persistent suppression amidst a sexist reality:
A-woman-should-know-her-place; I’ve-got-her-exactly-where-I-want-her; she’s-emotional-and-unstable-and-will-crumble.
George chose not to paint these women as though in costume, linked with the joy of a festival. Rather, a remarkable and sensitive man, he approached them with reverence, rendering them as female soldiers. The exact era, as painted, is ambiguous, and yet it is certainly long before American women had the freedom, or the liberty!, to choose such a path. He focused on their earnestness while embracing the femininity of their shapes, their dress, and their soft features.
By contrast, George Rodrigue’s Aioli Dinner (1971), also celebrating fifty years, commemorates an all-male supper club, popular in southwest Louisiana between 1890 and 1920, as reflected literally by the distinct portraits of its eminent members. The women, anonymous and barely discernible as female, stand in the back, in their place, having cooked the all-day, multi-course meal.
Wendy, baaaabyyy, what’s this I hear about you not wanting to advertise anymore in my magazine? …said [a well-known businessman] as he slipped his hand ‘round my waist and up my blazer, while a client, considering a painting, looked on….From my journal, 1993
I am not strong despite my femininity. I am, quite simply, strong, period.
Since this whole thing started, all I’ve heard from everyone is, ‘Be strong!’ [One person] told me so often that he insisted it should be my mantra! You’re the first person, the only person, who told me I am strong.From a conversation with Nurse Josselin at Methodist Hospital, Houston, Texas, after we changed George’s sheets together and lifted him, at 200 pounds, into the bed. Written in my journal, 11/30/13
A few months before he died, George gave me a beautiful and expensive car. Truth is, he was far more excited about it than I was; however, due to the circumstances, years later I still couldn’t bring myself to part with it.
And yet, last year when this painting, Miss July Fourth of Carencro, Louisiana, in the same family since the 1970s, came up for auction in Boston, Massachusetts, without thinking twice,
I sold the car.
It was a good trade.