Tuesday, December 15, 2009

From Jolie Blonde to Bodies: Paintings of Women

According to local legend, in the 1920s a Cajun imprisoned in Port Arthur, Texas pined for his lost love, his beautiful blonde, his “Jolie Blonde,” and wrote a waltz from those feelings of longing. Over the years the song became for many the Cajun anthem based on a sort of modern day Evangeline, and Cajun men throughout Louisiana sang in French some version of...

Pretty blonde, look at what you’ve done

You left me to go

To go with another than me

What hope and what future can I have?

On the internet there are other more credible versions of the history of this song, most notably its copyright origins with Cleoma Breaux (1906-1941), famous as an early performer with her husband Joe Falcon, and I encourage you to explore this history if you want facts over romance. However, I will touch on that story a bit by sharing that Cleoma was from a town of 15,000 people near Lafayette called Crowley, Louisiana (Rice Capitol of the World), a place famous not only for its charm, but also for growing some true Louisiana characters like brothers Edwin and Marion Edwards, Senator John Breaux, Judge Edmond Reggie (father-n-law to Ted Kennedy), and our long-time friend Billy Broadhurst. For some reason this small town with its motto “Where Life is Rice and Easy,” as well as its annual rice festival and its newly renovated opera house is an on-going source of Louisiana’s colorful history, right down to the most famous of Cajun songs.

Ironically George Rodrigue, although unfamiliar with her connection to “Jolie Blonde,” did paint Cleoma Breaux and Joe Falcon in 1977. He recalled her as famous for accompanying her husband on a modern cowboy guitar, an unusual instrument for an early Cajun band. The Breauxs played for years at Oneziphore Guidry’s dance hall in Rayne, Louisiana (Frog Capitol of the World), and Joe Falcon (1900 – 1965) recorded “Allons a Lafayette” in 1928, making him the first Cajun music recording star. (pictured, Cajun music legend Doug Kershaw, Jolie's Louisiana Bistro owner Steve Santillo, George Rodrigue)

But for the purposes of this post and the story of Rodrigue’s Jolie Blonde paintings, what matters is the story George clung to as a young man (and indeed still does today); what matters is the romantic myth of this convict who wrote a waltz for the woman he loved, a faceless Cajun beauty waiting for Rodrigue to invent her image.

By 1974 George Rodrigue lived in Lafayette, Louisiana and painted Cajuns. It had been three years since his first painting with people, The Aioli Dinner, and his collectors expected complex works with large groups of people, rooted in old photographs and Cajun history. To paint these intricate and tight designs, he remained tense for hours, even days, steadying his hand with a mahlstick, a Knights of Columbus sword he pulled like Excalibur on a hot summer day from the mud of the Bayou Teche.

It was 3:00 AM one night, and he had painted nearly twenty hours to complete one of these complicated works for a client. His right hand ached, and his head swirled with thoughts of tiny faces and deliberate brushstrokes. He returned to his easel and in one hour, as he listened to Joel Sonnier and Doug Kershaw sing his favorites, without model, photograph, or mahlstick, he painted Jolie Blonde. She came out of his head and onto the canvas, quickly and with loose brushstrokes, painted entirely for himself, without a collector standing by. (1974, size 24x18)

Ironically, the painting sold the next day, with four couples fighting over the purchase.

Rodrigue’s Jolie Blonde paintings, like his Evangelines, could fill an entire museum exhibition. He photographed dozens of models over the years and painted hundreds of versions.

However, it is that first version, the one he invented from his dreams in 1974, that remains not only his most famous, but also the quintessential Cajun portrait of that culture's ‘beautiful blonde.’

Jolie Blonde is as much a repetitive subject for George as the Oak Tree and the Blue Dog. In fact, for many years he’s painted the three subjects together. (pictured, Another Dangerous Woman Crept Into My Life, 1991, 40x30; Sweet Dreams, 1991, 36x48)

I’ve modeled as Jolie Blonde for numerous works for George over the years, beginning in 1994. (pictured, Chanel #5, 1995, 78x78; She Never Saw Me, 2003, 24x20)

His recent series Bodies re-visits Jolie Blonde as a classic nude in both cemetery settings and more contemporary arrangements. (pictured, Leg Over Chair, Day 2004; Sitting Blue, 2004)

I am alarmed in these paintings at George's ability to mix her story with my vulnerability. This is where it’s important to remember that these are not portraits (particularly for you, the viewer), but rather means to an artistic end (see the post Portraits for more insight). Just like George, I can't help but view these paintings with an eye like no one else. In a strange way, I see them as though they are George himself --- or rather, paintings of his feelings, of his soul.

For more on Bodies, see the post The Nude Figure. For more on modeling, see the post "Nature Girl"

In addition to Bodies and other Jolie Blonde with Blue Dog paintings, George honors the legend with Jolie's Louisiana Bistro, a restaurant he opened with his sons André and Jacques and friend Steve Santillo in Lafayette last year.

The restaurant features upscale New Orleans cuisine, as well as a large collection of Rodrigue’s Cajun paintings. It’s logo, as you may expect, is that first Jolie Blonde from 1974, a painting he created completely from his head in one hour in the middle of the night. That is his Jolie Blonde, the one he loves the best. The rest, no matter whom the models, are just attempts at recapturing that spontaneous, mysterious, and enchanting original. (pictured, Together Again, 2004)

Or are they? He might argue that he’s moved on, and that the Jolie Blonde of thirty-five years ago has been replaced, both in his life and on his canvas. As much as I love the early painting, I like to think that this is true. For an artist so associated with repetitive imagery, when it comes to the classics, to the artwork that defines his career, he never repeats himself. He moves forward, always looking towards that next great masterpiece.


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Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Art Business, A Few Thoughts

Written in response to questions about the art business from artists and their partners, especially Joey, who wrote in this week-

When I think back twenty years on the early days of working in the galleries in New Orleans and Carmel, California, I remember the frustration of wanting to do things a certain way but not being able to because I was employed by George’s agent, and it was not my business. In those pre-computer times, I hand-wrote notes to clients on a daily basis and made weekly runs to Carmel Camera Center for photographs. Sandra (my co-worker) and I used to clip the new silkscreens onto a suction cup on the front door, waiting for the right light to take a photograph, because professional photos from Louisiana could take four to six weeks to process. In photos of original paintings, anyone who looked closely enough would see the base of the front door, as well as the sidewalk in the background.

A client called with questions, and in the time it took for us to take photographs, write letters, and process the mail, it could be five or six days before they received available images. And by that time, especially in the case of originals, paintings sold, and then we faced apologies and excuses. It was a hands-on business, not a mail order one. Because George never has wholesaled his work nor sold to other galleries, people dealt directly (as they do today) with the Carmel or New Orleans gallery to make a purchase. For several years I was one of five people in the world that might help someone purchase a Rodrigue. I think this process humanized not only us, but also George, and it’s the reason why, in these current days of Pay Pal and on-line shopping carts that we avoid selling on line. We’re old-fashioned, and we enjoy and value that personal contact with our clients, something lost with today’s ‘point and click.’

It’s interesting to me that many evenings when I scroll through that day’s QuickBook receipts (a process quite different from the hand-written records of yesteryear, or rather, three years ago…), I recognize names from the old days, people I sold to in New Orleans or Carmel between 1991 and 1996, the years I worked day-to-day in the galleries. I remember almost all of these clients! ---A fact I attribute to those hand-written notes and regular personal correspondence, so different from today’s mass e-mailers. (George points out to me that it was not only a lot of legwork, but also luck --- how the ball bounces. Pictured painting is unfinished.)

Recent purchases by those clients tell me that George’s art stands the test of time. Just last month a doctor purchased a large painting from the Carmel gallery, and I recognized his name.

He was a medical student from the Midwest who came into the Carmel gallery in 1991 and fell in love with a large canvas (size 48x36), the same size as his recent purchase, but priced at that time at $7500. We had a great conversation, full of a genuine passion for the art on my part (not yet the artist, HA!), and a genuine curiosity by this young man who recognized a brilliant painting and was desperate to have it. He convinced me, and I took a chance on him. He mailed me a check each month for $100 as he worked his way through school, and with each receipt I included a note about George’s latest projects. Several years later, once finished with his residency, he sent the small balance and took possession of his painting. Since that time he’s purchased two additional canvases at ten times his original purchase price.

There are many stories like this in the Rodrigue Galleries. As the years pass, people don’t tire of it, but rather crave more of it. And the personal connection with Sandra or Mary in Carmel or Lawrence or Rhonda in New Orleans or Dickie in Lafayette is an important part of that process. If we lose that, then we might as well close the galleries and ship everything to E-bay or QVC. We might as well quit caring, trusting, believing. (pictured, Mary, Sandra, Lawrence, and Rhonda)

Trusting is probably the biggest obstacle in a business like this. I’ve seen George burned many times over the years. Galleries, business partners, agents, and even friends have stolen from him, and if the betrayals weren’t so painful (sad) I’d give a few examples here (although I do recount one incident below).

But George taught me something valuable:

1) Let it go and move on. Harboring grudges or hatred or thoughts of revenge are useless and, more important, exhausting. Those feelings hold you back and make you bitter and unproductive. It’s far better to take the loss, learn from the situation, and do your best to avoid a repeat down the road.

2)That said, you can’t stop believing in people! You have to take a chance! I often am shocked with the trust I see George place in others, just on the heels of a theft or betrayal. And yet, he trusted me. He trusts his sons. He trusts our small gallery staff. He trusts the carpenters and painters at the new gallery. He trusts everyone he deals with. As a result, sure, sometimes bad things happen. But also as a result, wonderful things happen. Most people can be trusted, and in my experience, it’s worth taking a chance.

At the same time, it never pays to be stupid. If you are an artist who places your work with a gallery, you have no choice but to trust that agent or that director. Do your research first. And always, no matter how much you hate to do it, drop by unexpectedly and count your paintings and check on those sales. (pictured, Rodrigue warehouse)

I say this because of personal experience, most of which I can’t repeat here. However here’s one example:

In the late 1980s George had an exhibition of one hundred Blue Dog and Cajun works in California. The show was a sell-out. The gallery owners closed up shop and skipped town. George never found them and never was paid. Two year’s work was lost. (However, he did receive bills from their framer and caterer; bills he ended up paying to avoid a lawsuit).

But I still say (as would he): TRUST, but BE CAREFUL, and yet I’ll repeat, TRUST. George is the first to admit that the best things in life have come his way because he took a chance on people.

And sometimes that faith lies in just encouraging the artist's passion, the profession. George has always believed in supporting other artists, particularly local ones. (pictured, Jacques Rodrigue with artist Bill Hemmerling)

If you're personal in your approach, you're miles ahead of the rest. (pictured, the gallery of artist Ran Horn, who paints Van Gogh (in his own outrageous way) in Van Horn, Texas)

There is no manual (or none that I’ve tackled without being bored to tears) for the gallery business. When hiring people, you might be surprised to know that for me, art experience is not a reason for employment. However, retail, or any other sort of experience in working with the public, is Number One. If you’re too shy to start a conversation with a total stranger, than you shouldn’t be working in a gallery. If you’re too snobby to treat the person in shorts and a t-shirt with as much respect as the one in the Armani suit, than you’re not for us. (pictured, typical Rodrigue collectors at Mardi Gras)

After that, an art history degree is great, but just as important is a passion for this particular artist, in our case George Rodrigue. Without a manual, we have to teach it all to you anyway, so the best thing you can start with is a love of the art. (pictured, Rodrigue collector Don Sanders in his Houston office, with Jacques Rodrigue)

We have very little turnover among our staff, because we treat them well, not only in terms of salaries, but also time off, anything they need regarding their families or to take care of health issues or (following Katrina) housing issues. We trust them and respect them, and in turn they treat our business with the same care they might treat it if it were their own. (pictured, in the French Quarter Gallery, September 2005, between Hurricanes Katrina and Rita)

We can leave town for months and know that our staff is taking care of things in a way that makes us proud. And on that rare occasion that we hire someone new, George and I panic about the integration with the others. Will that person who’s been with us fifteen years be happy with this addition?

Furthermore, when it comes to our staff versus the public, we back our staff every time. This is different than the ‘customer is always right’ mantra from most retail establishments. We know our staff that well, and we’ll back them in any client disagreement or that rare complaint, knowing that the worst case scenario is a simple misunderstanding or an honest mistake, something never worthy of reprimand because, let’s face it, it happens to all of us.

And finally, when it comes to the business of art, I recommend fastidiousness. Don’t jump on some idea on a whim. And unless you really need it, don’t jump on it for the money either. Let the art (and the artist!) guide the way. The times I’ve seen George least happy is when he followed the whims of others, when someone pressured him into something. If he’s doing something for the money, the money has to be so great, and the need so important, that any artistic compromise is worth it. In that same vein, if he’s doing it for an alternate cause, like a non-profit, or a hometown honor, it had better be worth it and strong enough to endure public criticism and in some cases disdain and/or jealousy.

There’s a reason there are no Blue Dog t-shirts floating around out there. There’s a reason Blue Dog posters don’t pop up in every corner shop and Blue Dog galleries in every shopping mall. And yet there’s also a reason that George agreed to 17,000 New Orleans Jazz Fest posters in 1995, 1996, and 2000 (and believe me, as any Jazz Fest poster artist will tell you, it wasn’t the money).

So if you’re an artist or an artist’s partner, and you want to make it in the business world while retaining the romanticism and bohemianism of the art world, I don’t have sound advice nor a rulebook, but I do know what’s worked for George:

Trust your fellow human beings. Take a chance on people.

But be smart and follow up with thorough but non-threatening checks on your art and business.

When it comes to projects, remember your long-term goals and follow your instincts.

Become comfortable and open (even slightly vulnerable) with the public, and surround yourself with people who are the same. If you’re genuine, most people will respond favorably. But if you fake it, they will know.

And if you are the artist, PAINT, CREATE. George tells artists all of the time: “You aren’t painting enough.”

It’s almost religious, isn’t it? Trust, believe, and tackle the disappointments as lessons, even gifts, that they may grant you the courage to continue and the empathy to understand your critics while strengthening your resolve.

As I read this to George he reminded me that the art business, or any business if it’s your life’s calling, above all else, should be fun! (pictured George Rodrigue with Paul Prudhomme and Pete Fountain)


For more on The Art Business, see the post Two Publishing Stories.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Blue Dog Man, 1996- 1999

Maybe it’s Diana Krall singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” or maybe it’s the lights on our turquoise tree, or maybe it’s this stormy New Orleans afternoon, but something has made me sentimental in thinking back on what I like to call the ‘Blue Dog Man’ years, 1996-1999. It was during this time that George and I got married; we became full owners of the Rodrigue galleries; we began a prodigious relationship with Neiman Marcus; we toured with great success for the publisher Stewart, Tabori & Chang; and we took on so many projects not mentioned that I’ll be lucky if I get through the highlights here.

As you may recall from the post Blue Dog: Out of Control, the mid-1990s saw George Rodrigue painting around the clock, trying to please his fans, his agent, and his bill collectors. Somewhere along the way he decided it wasn’t fun anymore, and by 1996 he was shutting down. As tensions mounted with his agent, George became rebellious. He took the Blue Dog in new directions, hoping to spark some fun in his routine.

This included paintings and silkscreens of the Blue Dog in a bear suit, as well as its occasional transformation as Dudley, the Bull Dog. As usually happens with George and new ideas, many of those closest to him, namely his agent and friends, worried that he was messing with a good thing. But remember, as I’ve discussed in numerous posts both directly and indirectly, in order for George to be happy as an artist, his art must be exciting to him. It can’t be dictated by the whims of others, or else very quickly he becomes bored, and he risks turning his passion into ...well… work. (pictured, Dog in a Bear Suit 1997, original silkscreen edition of 75)

This is past our time period and a bit off subject, but I do find it ironic that in recent years George’s son Jacques has become “Bear Head.”

The highlight of 1996, without question, was Neiman Marcus’s commission. They asked George to create an image for the cover of their men’s catalogue, The Book, with the only requirement that he include their symbol, a butterfly, in the design. (pictured, Butterflies Are Free, 36x63 inches, acrylic on canvas).

Although painting an original work, George was aware that the image ultimately would wrap around a book. He thought that something should happen as one turned the book over. In this case, a butterfly leaves the rug and flies alongside the Blue Dog. On the front cover we see a Blue Dog dressed as a man. The blank space above the dog’s head held the catalogue’s title.

The image was a tremendous success, and as a result George’s collaboration with Neiman Marcus continued with Hawaiian Blues (1998, 36x63, acrylic on canvas), also a catalogue cover, but this time celebrating the opening of their new store in Honolulu.

The butterflies amass on the back of the book (the left), travel across the spine, and form a lei around the dog’s neck. Here it’s easy to relate to George’s Cajun paintings if one thinks of the dog as being cut out and pasted onto the landscape of an old Hawaiian postcard just as the Cajuns were cut out and pasted onto Louisiana (see the post The Aioli Dinner and a Cajun Artist).

I watched George work on this piece for months, and I remember clearly his enjoying the puzzle of creating this composition and concept (similar to the recent painting Victory on Bayou St. John). He formed the sketch on a duplicate canvas, also size 36x63, and he pasted the butterflies onto the design. We kept George’s mother, in her 90s and living with us at the time, happily occupied and feeling needed for weeks by having her cut out butterflies from enlarged photocopies of clip art images. George stretched an identical canvas and copied his design in paint while referring to the mock-up across the room.

Normally George does not make prints of his paintings. (The prints are original silkscreens, different from the paintings, as described here). But in this case, as with the other Neiman Marcus prints, George made silkscreens of the painting and sold them in both his galleries and within the corresponding catalogue. The one thousand Hawaiian Blues prints sold out within just a few weeks, and to this day the painting is arguably George’s most famous from the Blue Dog Series.

Following the success of Hawaiian Blues, Neiman Marcus commissioned The Millennium (1999, 36x63, acrylic on canvas), George’s design for their January 2000 catalogue cover. As with the other paintings, they gave him carte blanche with regards to design and concept, provided he incorporate a butterfly in some way.

An Egyptian plucks a star from the cosmos, symbolizing the beginning of creativity and art. This pushes through and survives the Dark Ages in the form of a Viking ship. At the same time, creativity and art begin in Louisiana as a mass of butterflies. They move across the spine of the book, and the two concepts collide on the cover in the form of a Blue Dog, a powerful symbol of creativity and art in the year 2,000 and beyond.

(For more paintings with blue dogs and butterflies see the post "Butterflies are Free")

Following The Millennium, George dissolved his relationship with Neiman Marcus, lest his Blue Dog become their symbol; however, the partnership was a positive one on every level, and the department store’s willingness to give him complete freedom in his designs allowed George the opportunity to re-examine meaning within his art.

Simultaneously, he completed the book Blue Dog Man (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1999). Unlike the fictional account in the book Blue Dog (1994, see the post Two Publishing Stories…), in Blue Dog Man George enjoyed the freedom that comes with having proven oneself. He tells his story of the Blue Dog Series for the first time, tying it in with his Cajun paintings and daring to admit that he himself had become the Blue Dog ------- that is, the Blue Dog Man.

By this time, people stopped him on the street and asked him about his paintings. He became a celebrity as ‘the artist who paints the Blue Dog.’ It might appear he gave in to this label, but I think rather he embraced it and saw it as a new direction, maybe even something empowering that allowed him to move forward in his art. Otherwise, why would he have surprised me with the image below as our wedding portrait (1997, 24x36)? He wasn’t laughing when he gave it to me. He was serious, and I don’t think it would have occurred to him to paint us together in any other way.

There were other exciting projects during these years as well, including the 1996 poster for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival featuring George’s good friend Pete Fountain;

A commission by the Democratic National Committee to paint President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore for the official poster commemorating the 53rd Presidential Inaugural, 1997;

Luck Be a Lady (1999), a 15-foot painting celebrating the opening of Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans (hanging there today within the Besh Steakhouse);

And the Chicago Cow Parade (1999), for which Neiman Marcus requested three Rodrigue cows to graze in their flower gardens on Michigan Avenue. The project unfortunately caused a copyright nightmare and lawsuit when the Cow Parade attorneys reproduced miniature versions of George’s cows for Hallmark stores across the country after he specifically denied them permission. Upon settling the dispute, we ended up with hundreds of these cows in our warehouse, and in typical Rodrigue-form, he turned them into an installation for the New Orleans Museum of Art exhibition in 2008 (pictured, one of the Chicago Cows in front of A Herd of Moos, a Wall of Blues, created from illegally reproduced mini-cows).

George donated two of the cows for auction benefiting the American Cancer Society, and the third tours assorted venues today, currently posing for pictures in the lobby of the New Orleans Sheraton Hotel.

So what does it mean to be the Blue Dog Man? The concept appealed to George, as evidenced not only by our wedding invitation, but also by exhibitions like “Blue Dog For President,” on view in 1996 in Union Station, Washington, D.C. (pictured, As Honest as the Day is Long, I Once Debated Nixon, and Secret Service Dog, all 1996)

This Blue Dog Man direction propelled George forward in his thinking. By January 1998 he was free of his agent and open to his own whims, without dictation or pressure from anyone. During this period of the late 1990s, he and the Blue Dog became one and the same, on a journey together, and George recognized liberation. After twenty-five years of painting and commenting on the past with the Cajuns, he dared to use the Blue Dog to comment on today. He expressed opinions in his work, as well as satire and predictions and whimsy (and if you still have any doubt, see the painting No More Dukes in the post about Louisiana characters). Basically, any idea he had as a man, he could translate through the Blue Dog onto the canvas.

As I feared at the start of this story, there is just too much to cover in these years. I didn’t even get to the museum exhibitions such as the Gwinnett County Arts Museum in Atlanta, the excitement of 50-city national book tours such as the one for Blue Dog Man, or festival posters and fundraisers such as The Schaeffer Eye Center/Beam’s Crawfish Boil in Birmingham, the Shreveport Red River Revel, and the 50th Anniversary of the New Orleans Jazz Club. The Revel especially is important, not only because it supports youth art programs throughout North Louisiana (directly in line with the newly founded George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts), but also because it’s the first place we tried our public presentations, where George paints in front of an audience as I narrate his story, something we’ve done countless times since for schools, museums, and on book tour.

These festivals and tours were the beginning of our ‘partnership,’ if you will, something other than husband and wife, friendship, or business, but rather a precursor to Musings of an Artist’s Wife. (for more on this, see the post Lectures and Painting Demos)

My mother used to say (and my sister will attest) that I never have had trouble talking. As I’ve gotten older, I try to be a better listener than speaker, but when it comes to George, sentiment gets the better of me, and I easily fill whatever time I’m allotted, whether twenty minutes or three hours, with stories about this interesting person, this Blue Dog Man. People ask me, aren’t you nervous? How are you so prepared? And I respond every time with the same honest (albeit sappy) answer:

“It is easy to speak about someone you love.”


For a complete history of the Blue Dog leading up to this post, see (1) Blue Dog: In the Beginning, 1984-1989, (2) Blue Dog: The Ghost of Tiffany, 1990-1992, (3) Blue Dog: Out of Control, 1993-1995,

..... and following this post, see (5)Blue Dog 2000, The Year of Xerox, (6) Blue Dog: The Abstract Paintings, 2001-2003

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Sunday, December 6, 2009

Portraits: The Kingfish and Uncle Earl

For years George tried to convince me that he is not a portrait painter. He explained that others paint with far more skill in interpreting likenesses, and that he used his models as just that, models. If he paints Jolie Blonde, in other words, it’s not about the person posing, but rather about the legend. When he painted his mother’s school class, it was not about her and her friends, but rather a depiction of a slice of time.

This despite the Aioli Dinner (1971) and its table of actual New Iberia Frenchmen, although interestingly enough George only in recent years referred to those faces as portraits, even after his laborious struggle to capture their likenesses (see The Aioli Dinner and a Cajun Artist). The milieu was more important than any individual part.

Even the paintings of his sons he described in terms of what the figures represent, as opposed to the personalities or portrayals of the boys he knows as André and Jacques (see the post The Rodrigue Brothers). The paintings reveal little about them (his sons) because George designed the works to enlighten his viewers about something else (the Cajuns).

He refused to call himself a portrait artist even after painting three United States Presidents, five Louisiana Governors, three great jazz musicians for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (actually four, if we count the non-Jazz Fest poster of Mahalia Jackson, pictured along with the other Rodrigue Jazz Fest posters here), countless paintings of well-known people such as Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Chef Paul Prudhomme, Quarterback Drew Brees, Cajun and Zydeco musicians Clifton Chenier, the Romero Brothers, the Rayne-bo Ramblers, and well, you get the idea.

So when he said, “I’m not a portrait painter,” what was that? Was this some form of modesty? Or dare I say insecurity?

Neither are terms ever associated with George when it comes to his art. I think he firmly believed for years that his portraits just didn’t measure up. And because his goal was to capture the essence of a culture as opposed to a person, he perhaps dismissed his portraits, because for his purposes their individual effectiveness really didn’t matter.

Maybe on a smaller level the denial was rooted in resentment, stemming from what he saw as an albatross of family portrait commissions in the 1980s or even that first self-portrait of 1971 (see the post Early Oak Trees and a Regrettable Self-Portrait).

To the rest of us, there’s no denying that George has painted portraits for nearly forty years. Yet he himself only admitted it recently. It was spring 2008, and the New Orleans Museum of Art opened its exhibition Rodrigue’s Louisiana: Forty Years of Cajuns, Blue Dogs and Beyond Katrina, showcasing two hundred and sixty Rodrigue paintings and sculpture in their main galleries. The museum’s director John Bullard chose the categories, and the one he insisted on most was “Portraits.”

Once installed, “Portraits” comprised the largest section of the exhibition. There were more portraits than Oak Trees, Cajuns, Blue Dogs, Hurricanes, or Bodies, the show’s other categories. It never occurred to Bullard to group the Portraits with the Cajuns. And yet it never occurred to George not to do so.

George and I walked into the show and there was the word “Portraits,” stenciled in large letters on the wall. Without counting, I’m sure there were fifty or more paintings in that room, and yet George viewed them as though for the first time.

After walking the large area in silence, he paused in front of a painting at the far corner and said,

“This was my first real portrait, maybe the best one I’ve ever done.”

It was the first time I heard him refer to himself as having painted an effective portrait, or for that matter, a portrait at all.

Painted in 1980 The Kingfish (oil on canvas, 60x36 inches) is George’s interpretation of Louisiana Governor and U.S. Senator Huey Long (1893-1935). As with his other Cajun paintings, he painted Long not in shadow as one would expect beneath a tree, but rather glowing with his culture as though cut out and pasted onto the dark trunk. His white clothing and barely discernible feet cause him to float within the composition, as though he is a ghost, timeless and historic.

The setting is Huey’s famous campaign speech. He stands beneath the Evangeline Oak in St. Martinville and says,

“Just as Evangeline cried for her Gabriel, Louisiana is crying for roads and schools and bridges.”

George uses the tree to frame not only Huey, but also a vision of the capitol building he would construct in 1932 in Baton Rouge. In addition, the apparition refers to Long’s assassination, occurring three years later in that very structure.

Soon after its completion the painting hung on exhibition in the Senate Rotunda in Washington, D.C. during a show of Louisiana artists. (pictured, George with Mrs. Long and former U.S. Senator Russell Long, son of Huey Long, from a newspaper article covering the show).

Again, when George painted The Kingfish he did not think of it as a portrait, but rather as an extension of his efforts to preserve his culture and record Louisiana history. It wasn’t until that day at NOMA, when he looked around the room and saw what he’d done that he dared to discuss his works as portraits.

After painting Huey Long it was natural that George follow with his brother, which is exactly what he did in 1989. Uncle Earl (oil on canvas, 60x36 inches) depicts Louisiana Governor Earl K. Long (1895-1960).

As with Huey, George paints Earl on the campaign trail, this time in North Louisiana where he drove door to door in his white Cadillac (like driving around in one’s living room, I’ve often thought), purchasing vegetables from farmers in one parish and distributing the food to working people in the next. He too is framed by the oak tree, but instead of the capitol building, George painted pea patches, shown in three rows to Earl's left. At the NOMA show I got a real kick out of hearing George talk about this painting:

“There he is, Crazy Earl, screaming into the microphone.”

I also noticed during the NOMA exhibition that whereas Huey is George’s favorite, Earl belongs to the people. They love this painting, and among the public it is considered one of his best.

Note: These blog posts are not meant to be history lessons. They’re about the paintings and the artist behind them. For a great read on Huey Long, thanks to Hollywood we all know about his autobiography Every Man a King, as well as Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. To learn more about Earl Long, at a friend’s suggestion I recently purchased Socks on a Rooster by Richard B. McCaughan and The Earl of Louisiana by A.J. Liebling.

So now, according to the painter himself, George Rodrigue is a portrait artist! In addition to the Longs, he painted Louisiana Governors Edwin Edwards, Kathleen Blanco, and Bobby Jindal.

In 2009 Rodrigue tackled perhaps his most important portrait work to date, an historical painting of President Eisenhower and Andrew Higgins for the National World War II Museum. (See the full story here).

And yet, even though he now admits to painting portraits, that does not change the intent of either his earlier paintings of individual Cajuns or his more recent figurative works. He still uses models to express a comprehensive idea separate and apart from the person posing. There are distinctions, and they’re pretty obvious once one understands George’s concepts.

For example, although he’s painted from photographs of me several times, as with his sons he never, with the possible exception of our wedding invitation (featured in the next post, Blue Dog Man), approached the paintings as portraits.

With regards to my face and person this remains true today, and my likeness in series such as Jolie Blonde and Bodies, for example, is merely a means to an artistic end that has nothing to do with capturing my portrait or anything about me personally.

And yet when it comes to the Long Brothers, after more than twenty years of denial, George himself admits that these larger-than-life Louisiana characters overtook his intention probably from the moment he applied the last brushstroke to each one’s unmistakable and unique visage.


pictured above: George Rodrigue with Clancy DuBos at NOMA 2008, with the article Clancy wrote for Dixie, the Times-Picayune’s Weekly Paper, on November 23rd, 1980. This was George’s first major press in New Orleans

for a related post, see "The Family Portrait"

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