Art & Culture: Blue Dog Artist Dies; Visionary Stayed True To Cajun Roots
Written by: Kristin Askelson and Ken Stickney, December 15, 2013
George Rodrigue, who gained national and international attention when he painted his now very famous Blue Dog, died Saturday.
“We are heartbroken to share the news that George Rodrigue has passed away after a long battle with cancer,” according to a statement from his family. “George was our loving husband, father and friend.
“George Rodrigue was also a gifted artist who set out to paint Louisiana as he knew it by visually interpreting the landscape and the rich history of the Cajun people. Later in his career his Blue Dog paintings captured hearts and minds around the world.”
Within moments of the news of his death, many remembered him as “iconic” and as a “visionary.”
Rodrigue was born and raised in New Iberia. As a child, he was diagnosed with polio and spent four months bedridden with paint-by-numbers sets to keep him occupied. He began painting in earnest in the attic of his family’s St. Peter’s street home, and by third grade had announced his intention to become a professional artist.
He graduated from Catholic High School in New Iberia in 1962, along with 32 classmates, and then studied art at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, then known as the University of South Louisiana. In 1965, Rodrigue went to the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles to study graphic arts.
After the death of his father in 1968, Rodrigue moved back to Lafayette to become a full-time painter. He focused on the Louisiana landscape, especially the majestic oak trees that would eventually become one of his signature images. He became known for capturing Cajun culture in his images, from Jolie Blonde and Evangeline to former Gov. Huey Long and many festival posters.
But it was in 1984, after he had been painting 25 years, that Rodrigue created the image that would define his career. It was a little dog, Tiffany.
She became his muse after she died. She came to life in the Blue Dog paintings that catapulted him into national and international recognition.
Rodrigue was an iconic figure, said Barry Ancelet, French and humanities professor at UL. “He was a true visionary. He did for art what Paul Prudhomme did for cooking and Clifton Chenier did for music.”
Ancelet said Rodrigue’s generation was the one that began to evaluate Cajun culture for its treasures.
They were “then young, culturally motivated artists and writers and scholars that emerged in the 1960s and ’70s,” he said. “He had an unbelievable ability to identify and portray meaningful moments and events in Cajun culture. Some of his early work, such as his oak tree paintings, each one was like a little novel in itself.”
Ancelet said that generation of artists connected with their environment, its people and its traditions.
“Chenier said it best: ‘It‘s all right here. We just have to figure out what to do with it.’”
Rodrigue was Louisiana’s Artist Laureate. He will be remember as one of Louisiana’s favorite sons, according to Gov. Bobby Jindal.
“While we mourn the loss of a great man, we also celebrate his rich life and legacy,” Jindal said. “George will remain a presence in the hearts of the people who got to know him and his work will continue to inspire for generations to come.”
“He was not only a painter, but also a true community leader,” Jindal said. “George remained an advocate of the arts and arts-education throughout his life and dedicated himself to inspiring the next generation of artists and educators through his foundation, the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts.
“George’s Blue Dog not only became symbolic of his work, but it became a symbol for Louisiana. This earned him the ability to paint the likes of world leaders including Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. His work made him an ambassador for our state and a renowned artist, but he never forgot his Louisiana roots.”
Gordon Brooks, dean of the College of the Arts at UL, said Rodrigue was a classically trained artist who returned to Louisiana and “began painting what was in front of him: the swamp, the landscape and the tree.
“He was true to his Cajun heritage,” Brooks said. “Even though he was classically trained, I heard him talk about those paintings and how they were rustic in style. But they had meaning to him because they were his roots."
Rodrigue’s long career could be divided into several parts, Brooks said. In his more traditional work, he was a “chronicler, someone who chronicled early Cajun people gathered at the table, outside.” With the Blue Dog, Brooks said, he did more “pop art,” not unlike Andy Warhol.
“It was very popular and iconic,” he said.
Brooks said Rodrigue’s career took a “divergent course” with the introduction of the Blue Dog into his work.
“At one of his lectures, he was very articulate about how the Blue Dog would appear in other, older paintings in the trees,” Brooks said. “But he would make the dog appear anywhere — even in Washington, D.C. That opened a way for him to get his work outside the region.”
Although the Blue Dog paintings were popular, Brooks said, they did not diminish Rodrigue’s “love for painting the landscape.”
In recent years, Brooks said, Rodrigue had returned to painting with oils. It is “hard on the body” because of toxic fumes, Brooks said. But Rodrigue love painting with oils, and he was always careful to wear a mask.
Rodrigue was named not only an outstanding alumnus of UL, but also was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the College of the Art, joining other Louisiana artistic luminaries like A. Hays Town and Michael Doucet.
“As a person, he was very warm, friendly, understated, humble,” Brooks said. “He never tired of painting, never tired of working with kids. His foundation will be his legacy.
“It is a great loss.”
Rodrigue is survived by his wife, Wendy, and two sons, Jacques and Andre.
Entertainment editor Sundra Hominik contributed to this report.
Within minutes of the news breaking on social media and on online, many shared their thoughts about the artist on Twitter.
brandycav: ? George Rodrigue. What a huge influence on (my) art. Who’s gonna fill those shoes?
Julie Calzone: ? Today we lost a Louisiana treasure. Long live George Rodrigue
Dawn Fournier: ? Sad news. George Rodrigue, creator of the famous Blue Dog paintings, George Rodrigue, has died…
Douglas Menefee: ?RIP George Rodrigue. Very much left his mark on the world with the Blue Dog.
Jay Dardenne: ?The passing of George Rodrigue is a tremendous loss to our state. Our prayers are w/ his family, friends & all those whose lives he touched.
Fleurty Girl: ?Rest in peace, George Rodrigue. Creator of the famous Blue Dog paintings passed away today.
Scott Ferrell: Huge loss for Louisiana with the death of Blue Dog artist George Rodrigue
Gov. Bobby Jindal: ? Without question, George Rodrigue’s paintings will live on, but his legacy will be much more than paint on a canvas.
N.O. Jazz Orchestra: Tonight we mourn the loss, but celebrate the life, of the rare gem that was George Rodrigue.