Somewhere, deep within the swamp in George Rodrigue’s vision of Louisiana, lives an alligator that would render even Troy Landry speechless.
Maybe the Blue Dog, too.
Because you can only conclude that History’s Swamp People star has seen it all when it comes to swamp creatures. And George Rodrigue’s Blue Dog chronology begins in the swamp with the loup-garou, which is south Louisiana’s version of the werewolf.
“We have the first Blue Dog painting in this exhibit,” Natalie Mault said. “And you’ll notice that the Blue Dog isn’t blue - it’s gray.”
Mault is curator at the LSU Museum of Art, whose exhibit Blue Dogs and Cajuns on the River: George Rodrigue from the New Orleans Museum of Art and Other Collections illustrates the progression of Louisiana artist laureate Rodrigue’s 40-year career.
So, it’s only natural the painting that inspired Rodrigue’s iconic Blue Dog collection is included in this show.
The piece is called “Watchdog,” with the gray dog sitting in front of a red house, which stands in a swampy area of south Louisiana. Rodrigue based the image on his late studio dog Tiffany while developing an image of a loup-garou for a book of Cajun ghost stories.
The dog’s features are the same, though slightly muted. Oh, and her eyes are red.
She is the loup-garou in this painting, after all, so at least one of her features should be slightly scary.
That is, if the dog could be scary at all.
“George Rodrigue hung paintings of the loup-garou in the windows of his gallery in New Orleans,” Mault said. “It’s said a tourist walked by and said, ?Oh, look at the blue dog.’ That’s when the dog went from gray to blue.”
And though the Blue Dog has traveled the world, has joined celebrities in the spotlight - has even sat beside presidents and governors - Louisiana remains her home. She feels particularly comfortable lounging beneath the state’s ancient live oaks and hanging around its swamps and waterways.
Now here she sits next to a red alligator in Rodrigue’s painting, “Blue Dogs and Cajuns on the River,” created especially for this exhibit.
Yes, it’s a sure bet that even Troy Landry has never seen such a sight on his alligator hunts. The Blue Dog and red gator existed only in Rodrigue’s imagination until he created them on a 48- by 72-inch canvas.
“This painting was sold within days,” Mault said. “George Rodrigue finished it, then hung it in his New Orleans gallery, and it sold with the stipulation that it had to hang in this exhibit first.”
The LSU Museum of Art actually is the last stop for this exhibit. The show includes 17 Rodrigue paintings from the New Orleans Museum of Art’s collection, which has been traveling the state for the past year.
“Each show had a different title,” Mault said. “And George Rodrigue painted an original painting to show in each of those shows. So, the show in Shreveport wasn’t exactly the same as that in Alexandria.”
The exhibit in Baton Rouge
?See BLUE, page 7E
also will be different and larger than the rest, because the LSU Museum of Art has added paintings from the artist’s collection, as well as other personal collections, combining to form a show of more than 70 pieces.
The museum gave the public a small preview earlier in the summer when Rodrigue unveiled his newest piece “No. 1 Tiger Fan,” featuring the Blue Dog in an LSU football jersey. Numbered prints of this painting, as well as those of “Blue Dogs and Cajuns by the River,” will be sold in the LSU Museum of Art’s Museum Store on the first floor of the Shaw Center.
Proceeds from print sales will benefit the George Rodrigue Foundation, the LSU Museum of Art and the Tiger Athletic Foundation.
With that said, welcome to the beginning of Blue Dogs and Cajuns on the River, which starts not with the Blue Dog but the people whose home includes Louisiana’s swamps - the Cajuns.
Well, technically, it begins with Rodrigue’s self-portrait, a painting the artist created after reading a not-so-complimentary review of one of his first exhibits. That review was published in The Advocate, which negatively commented on Rodrigue’s artistic style, which isn’t exactly realism.
The review called it “inanimate.”
“So, he painted this self-portrait to show that he could work in realism,” Mault said. “He never sold this painting. He brings it with him and puts it in his exhibit to say, ?See? I can do this.’ The rest of the exhibit returns to his style.”
It’s an exciting style, not only because it ignites an explosion of color in the museum’s three main galleries but also because the subjects are so familiar.
Again, the Blue Dog has achieved international fame, but the main characters in Rodrigue’s “Saga of the Acadians” and “Cajuns” series are familiar. Their story is one close to south Louisianians’ hearts, and the characters are people they know.
Rodrigue’s own story begins in New Iberia, the heart of Cajun country, where he was born in 1944. The biography on his website, http://www.georgerodrigue.com, continues:
“During the mid-1960s, following six semesters at the University of Southwest Louisiana University (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) Rodrigue attended the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, where the graduate school’s curriculum provided him a nuts-and-bolts foundation in drawing and painting.”
Meanwhile, pop and abstract art influence ruled in popular culture.
“It was an exciting time for a young artist in America,” Rodrigue’s biography continues. “However, like today, critical success depended on one’s New York visibility.”
But Rodrigue opted to return to Louisiana, where, in 1968, he took a job as the art director for a Lafayette advertising agency, then left in the same year to paint full time.
“Rodrigue decided that he would not be a Louisiana artist in New York City,” his biography states. “Instead, he would return home with his new knowledge and give meaning to a new phrase: Cajun Artist.”
Rodrigue did this by using Louisiana’s symbols not only to “capture the essence of his personal world, but also to express his spiritual and cultural ideas as they pertained to Louisiana, to the South and to America.”
“Using the oak tree as his main subject in hundreds of paintings in the early 1970s, Rodrigue eventually expanded his subjects to include the Cajun people and traditions, as well as his interpretations of myths, such as Jolie Blonde and Evangeline,” the biography states.
Evangeline wears red while beneath her shadowy oak at the end of the series of Cajun paintings. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem not only follows Evangeline in the search and wait for her lover Gabriel, but also the Acadians’ exodus from Quebec, which eventually would end in southwest Louisiana.
“He painted the Cajuns in white with little or no shadow, a light shining from these transplanted people, giving them hope,” Rodrigue’s biography continues. “They floated almost like ghosts and appeared locked in the landscape, often framed by the trunk of a tree or the outline of a bush. The roads and rivers became one dark path leading to the small light underneath the oaks.”
Back to Evangeline, another Cajun legend’s name was mentioned alongside hers - Jolie Blonde.
“Jolie Blonde” is a song in most Cajun musicians’ repertoire. It was written in 1920 and tells the story of a pretty blond woman who leaves her Cajun lover for another man. The title’s English translation is “pretty blonde,” a character that intrigued Rodrigue. He’s depicted her in numerous works, painting her from a picture constructed by his imagination.
But the power of his imagination has proven stronger than even he realized.
At one point in the exhibit, visitors will view a portrait of Rodrigue’s wife Wendy standing beside the Blue Dog, who is wearing a tuxedo.
“This was the painting he created for their wedding invitations,” Mault said.
Next to this painting hangs a portrait of Rodrigue’s Jolie Blonde.
Rodrigue painted the Jolie Blonde portrait long before meeting his wife, yet when looking at the portrait of Wendy Rodrigue, it’s difficult to tell the difference between the two.
“He says that when he met Wendy, his friends said, ?That’s her, that’s the Jolie Blonde you’ve been painting all of these years,” Mault said.
These paintings will be found toward the end of the exhibit, where one of Chicago’s “Cows on Parade” sculptures stands in the center of the gallery, wearing a Blue Dog face.
And in between the Cajuns and the Jolie Blonde is the show’s star - the Blue Dog. She floats with butterflies in paintings commissioned by Neiman Marcus and shows up in a superhero’s mask and cape.
“George Rodrigue stopped doing commissioned work, because he found it limiting,” Mault said. “It’s amazing to see how many ways the Blue Dog can be portrayed.”
She’s right. The Blue Dog’s face fills a canvas in a multiple of three in the 2001 painting, “Stacked,” then in aviator’s goggles on a backdrop of a plane-filled sky in the 2000 piece “Wild Blue Yonder.”
She’s a clown in the 1991 piece “My Baby Made a Clown of Me (Big Top Dog)” and blooms with a crop of flowers in the 2002 painting “Happiness Blooms Around Me.”
Then there are her cameo appearances, when the Blue Dog pops up in Rodrigue’s portraits of celebrities and politicians.
Now, not all of these portraits feature the Blue Dog.
“A lot of these people requested the Blue Dog to be in their portraits,” Mault said.
She sits in the distance in former Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s portrait, and beside Gov. Bobby Jindal and his wife Supriya in the portrait of Louisiana’s first couple.
“Gov. Jindal named George Rodrigue as Louisiana’s artist laureate,” Mault said. “We’ve invited the Jindals to the opening.”
The museum also invited former governors Blanco and Edwin Edwards, as well. Edwards’ portrait is included in this exhibit, as well as those of former governors Huey and Earl Long.
Rodrigue’s painting of “Walking into the 21st Century,” showing former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore walking side-by-side past the U.S. Capitol is included in the portrait series.
“And we’re waiting on the portrait he painted of President Reagan,” Mault said. “It’s in the Lod Cook collection.”
The portrait should be hanging in the exhibit by now. Mault said this in the week before the show was to open. Most paintings were already hanging, some had yet to be installed.
Those hanging in the gallery at the end of the show were ready for viewing, featuring Rodrigue’s most recent work, including his abstract hurricane series, the “No. 1 Tiger Fan” and the artist’s portrait of Mike the Tiger and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
And, of course, sitting next to Brees is the Blue Dog, this time wearing a black sweater sporting a gold fleur-de-lis.
Yes, the Blue Dog who has emerged from the swamp in Rodrigue’s imagination to become a Louisiana favorite.
But this time she brings along a mighty red alligator that even the stars of Swamp People would covet.
And all are coming together on the river.