Extended Bio

Born and raised in New Iberia, Louisiana, artist George Rodrigue (1944-2013) was best known for his Blue Dog series of paintings, which brought him worldwide fame in the early 1990s and eventually evolved into an icon of American pop art. However, his early career focused on portraying what he feared was his dying Cajun heritage and Louisiana’s land, people, and traditions.

Rodrigue’s artistic ability was recognized when he was in the third grade. Stricken with polio, he spent four months creating art while confined to bed. Later, his formal art instruction began in 1962 at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, followed by California’s prestigious Art Center College of Design (then in Los Angeles).

Following school, he returned to his beloved homeland in 1968, and in Lafayette, Louisiana, began his journey as an artist, focused on portraying the landscape around him. He first began developing the motif of the oak tree, which would serve a background and central image in his paintings for the next several decades. Painting the tree close in, composed with dark earth tones and greens and a horizon line high up on his canvases to evoke the low, dense growth of the Acadian landscape.

Over the next few years in paintings like Aioli Dinner and Jolie Blonde, he would populate his compositions with scenes of Cajun people of the past. The French-speaking Acadians, later referred to as Cajuns, were forced to flee their home in Nova Scotia by the British in 1755, during the Le Grand Dérangement. Settling along the Atchafalaya Basin near the Gulf of Mexico in Louisiana, they struggled to find comfort and make a home in this new land. Rodrigue represented them in stark whites and bright tones that contrast with the dark hues of the background as if they were cut and pasted onto their new home landscape. He chose to focus his efforts on painting Cajun tradition as an act of preservation, stating:

”The culture was eroding and disappearing. I wanted to preserve that heritage, and I started painting the people I knew.”

The Class of Marie Courregé (1972) also exemplifies the style, subjects and method of using old photographs in many of Rodrigue’s early Cajun paintings. Under a dark shade of an oak, the artist depicted three rows of young women, basing them on the actual class photo of his mother from 1926 (right). As Rodrigue explained: “Marie Courregé is my mother. [bottom row, third from right] I show her with her school class to show the unity of the Cajuns, their determination to go forward, their desire to embrace the flag of America.”

Rodrigue quickly achieved international recognition by the mid-1970s, exhibiting The Class of Marie Courrege (1972) in the prestigious Salon organized by the Société des Artistes Français. There, Rodrigue was awarded an honorable mention, one of only five awards given that year. His work prompted Le Figaro to declare him to be “America’s Rousseau.” He sold his pieces across America, traveling from one small town to the next, befriending restaurateurs and other business people who shared his art with their clients.

In 1976, the artist published The Cajuns of George Rodrigue (1976), a book featuring 100 of his paintings in a large format with painting descriptions in both English and French. The first national book to cover Cajun culture, it received widespread attention and led Rodrigue to release several more books featuring his work. He also painted prominent figures from the past and present with ties to Louisiana, painting notable country, jazz, and zydeco musicians, Chef Paul Prudhomme, Hank Williams, Huey Long, public figures, writers and academics.

By 1984, when Rodrigue was known as all but the official Louisiana artist, he created forty paintings for a compilation of ghost stories in the book Bayou. One of the stories in the book was the Cajun/French legend of the loup-garou, a “crazy werewolf dog” that lurked in the bayous and cemeteries.He turned to a photograph of his dog, Tiffany, and she became the model for the painting “Watchdog.” Unbeknownst to him, these early loup-garou paintings were to shape the future of his art; the public began calling these images “Blue Dogs,” and on thousands of canvases and silkscreen prints for the next several decades, the Blue Dog evolved.

A chronological viewing of his Blue Dog paintings created during his decades-long career will show this evolution. It begins with Rodrigue’s placement of Blue Dog in the Louisiana landscape. This evolution continues through works in which Blue Dog stands alone and untethered to any object or thematic setting, exemplified by pieces like Loup-garou from the 1990s (pictured, the first-ever Rodrigue painting without an oak tree). As his career progressed, Rodrigue combined his imagery and titles to make profound comments on life. He also ventured into advertising partnerships, drawing on his early art school training in advertising design at Art Center College of Los Angeles. Notable examples include Absolut Rodrigue for Absolut Vodka, Hawaiian Blues for Neiman Marcus, and The Free Life for Xerox Corporation’s worldwide ad campaign.

In the 2000s, Rodrigue’s art took a more abstract and minimalist turn. He began using simple blocks of colors and shapes, as evident in works like Living in the Spotlight (pictured).

“People who have seen a Blue Dog painting always remember it. They are really about life, about mankind searching for answers. The dog never changes position. He just stares at you. And you’re looking at him, looking for some answers, ‘Why are we here?,’ and he’s just looking back at you, wondering the same.

The dog doesn’t know. You can see this longing in his eyes, this longing for love, answers.”

George Rodrigue to the New York Times, 1998

Over his forty-year career, George Rodrigue achieved international recognition and was named Louisiana’s official Artist Laureate. He was featured multiple times on the NBC Today Show, CBS Sunday Morning, and received articles in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and People Magazine.

Rodrigue is the subject of twelve books as well as numerous museum exhibitions, including career retrospectives held at the Dixon Gallery & Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee (2007) and the New Orleans Museum of Art (2008), both setting attendance records for a contemporary, living artist. As other institutions more closely study Rodrigue, there will be an even greater understanding of the artist’s work, his visual evolution from the Cajuns to the Blue Dog as a pop art icon, and the story’s unique place in the history of twentieth and twenty-first-century art.

During his life, Rodrigue advocated tirelessly for relief efforts following 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, as well as his primary passion, arts in education. Originally founded in 2009, the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts (GRFA), through its art contest, has awarded over $500,000 in scholarship awards to Louisiana high school students and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars of art supplies to schools through its “George’s Art Closet” program. For more information, visit rodriguefoundation.org.

Andre and Jacques Rodrigue, the artist’s two sons, continue the programs of GRFA and are the owners of Rodrigue Studios. They operate two galleries in New Orleans and Lafayette, Louisiana, where they exclusively exhibit their father’s art and share his life story. George Rodrigue passed away on December 14, 2013, at the age of sixty-nine after a battle with cancer.

“From the start of his career George Rodigue by-passed the traditional art establishment, going directly to the public to present his art. As his popularity grew, the art elite seemed suspicious, questioning how anything so popular could have serious value. In the past decade, after many museum exhibitions and critical articles and books, that attitude has changed. With his untimely death, we now must consider Rodrigue’s place in the history of American art. Two other artists have enjoyed the same public acclaim and also were long neglected by the art establishment: Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth. These three masters, while stylistically different, have similarities. Each chose to live outside the great art centers, preferring to remain in their small native towns. Each, in their own way, celebrated in their art unique aspects of the American experience. They are three of America’s great public artists.”

E. John Bullard
Director Emeritus, New Orleans Museum of Art