Painted fifty years ago, Rodrigue’s Jambalaya (a.k.a. Cajun Music in Trees) reflects not the popular rice dish, but rather a jumbled mixture of instruments and sounds, creating the music for a fais do do, or Cajun dance. The painting is a classic example of Rodrigue’s early Cajun Series canvases with figures.
The tree, cut off at the top, forms interesting shapes with the sky. The moss repeats like a musical rhythm across the composition. And the people, while playing the lively music of a dance, remain locked in by the trees and bushes, as though they are cut out (of Canada) and pasted onto the landscape of south Louisiana. Rather than in shadow, the musicians glow brightly, lit from within by the spirit of their culture, by the spirit of Acadiana.
“The Cajuns as I paint them are suspended in time with the sky always above them. But by putting the people in the tree, I can have the sky below them. The idea is that whether above the tree or in the tree the people are no closer or farther away from the sky or the earth. They are locked in the tree as they are locked in from the ground.”George Rodrigue, The Cajuns of George Rodrigue (1976, Oxmoor House)
At first glance, the inclusion of this painting in the exhibition The River is the Road: Paintings by George Rodrigue, opening June 17, 2023 at the West Baton Rouge Museum, is a stretch, even with what might loosely be interpreted as a path beneath the musicians. Yet, beyond its painted story, this particular canvas’s real-life journey and the mystery of its provenance is a meandering river all its own.
According to an early sales ledger, the painting first belonged to Roland Begneaud, a Lafayette pharmacist and the largest single collector of Rodrigue’s Cajun paintings. Sometime after, the ownership changed to Jean-Pierre Serrier, a French surrealist painter, known to Rodrigue because of their mutual representation by art dealer Kurt Schon of New Orleans. The ownership soon changed again to Ed Cheshire, a Baton Rouge jeweler who sold Rodrigue’s gold medallion interpretations of oak trees and Jolie Blonde. And finally, by another unknown transaction, the painting returned to Rodrigue’s personal collection, where it has remained for more than thirty years.
Over several months in 2022, Jambalaya was meticulously cleaned and restored, revealing certain elements hidden by years of pollution and neglect, such as the surprisingly intense colors, including the golden tree and its surroundings in the distance. The small sky beneath and between the branches of the primary oak shines bright with a hope previously unseen. The frame, found by Rodrigue in a junk shop and restored by the artist himself, dictated the nuances of tones within the composition, and is original to the painting.
“Art takes on a life of its own, long after the artist is gone.” -G.R.
–Coinciding with the 10th anniversary of Rodrigue’s death, “The River is the Road: Paintings by George Rodrigue” traces 45 years of the river in Rodrigue’s paintings, exploring the unique ways he used the river/road as a reference to his Cajun heritage, and ultimately as a metaphor for the journey of life. On view at the West Baton Rouge Museum, June 17 – October 29, 2023. Organized by the Life & Legacy Foundation with Wendy Rodrigue. Sponsored by Telich Custom Homes, Morgan Stanley, and the Louisiana Lottery. Learn more.