He longed to understand the effectiveness of a Da Vinci, specifically what elements of its design, color, and shadow make his paintings such obvious masterpieces, not just to the 16th century eye, but also to every eye since.
(pictured, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, 1510; notice how Mary’s arm is an extension from Anne’s shoulder and how the multiple figures create one strong triangular shape)
At the University of Southwest Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette), George’s education was wholly abstract, and the closest he came to traditional art studies was through his own efforts, such as this nude figure from 1963 (one of my favorites, which hangs today over the fireplace in our home).
It wasn’t until he reached a graduate school, The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California (which he attended as an undergraduate; for the story see Art School: Lafayette and Los Angeles, 1962-1967), that he was exposed to a more classic art education. Don’t get me wrong: Art Center was cutting edge, far from a conservative school. However, they mixed a focus on hard-edge painting and the abstract with the fundamentals, and George relished this formal training.
It was not easy for him. George has always said that his forte is the idea. He was never the best painter in class, and he struggled in particular with drawing. During a two-semester life drawing class, he entered the Christmas break with the lowest grades he’d known, not for lack of trying, but because he simply could not transfer the three-dimensional nude model to his two-dimensional sketchbook. (pictured, artist Lorser Feitelson teaching a class on figure drawing at Art Center)
I’ve told many stories in this blog of George’s excellence in a crisis. He finds a solution to nearly everything, and this struggle with life drawing was no exception. He spent that holiday break with a library book of Michelangelo’s drawings, and over a three-week period he learned from the best.
Rather than return to Louisiana that December, he spent his days copying these Renaissance drawings until he understood the proportions, movement, and shape as rendered by Michelangelo. (pictured, Michelangelo drawings, 16th century)
At his first class that January, George merely glanced at the model, noted the pose, and then drew a magnificent sketch, ala Michelangelo.
His professor stopped at George’s drawing table and marveled,
“What happened to you? You’re like a different artist!”
(pictured, Rodrigue drawings, 1965-6)
The professor used George’s drawings that semester as the example for the class. He emerged not only with an “A,” but more importantly he left school that year no longer intimidated by working with the human figure.
This does not mean that George set out to be Michelangelo. However, a better understanding of the Renaissance master contributed to his confidence in his own ability to experiment and find something all his own, a ‘Rodrigue figure.’ (pictured, mid 1970s, collection University Art Museum, Lafayette, Louisiana)
George painted nudes intermittently throughout the 1970s and 1980s within his Cajun series. Usually these referenced Evangeline or Jolie Blonde and were rather unpopular with his conservative audience, particularly the local crowd in southwest Louisiana. (pictured, Secret Hideaway, 1981, 30x40)
In a few cases, in fact, collectors returned paintings with a request that George ‘cover her up,’ after repeated complaints at home. Twice he gave into this because he needed the money, but in most cases he accepted the return of the painting.
George remained (and remains) undeterred, however, and pursued his figure studies well into the Blue Dog Series and the early 1990s, when his battle with chemical hepatitis forced him to abandon turpentine and oil paints in favor of the fast-drying acrylic paint, a medium not conducive to the blending necessary for painting female flesh. (For more on this see the post Oil Paint or Acrylic?)
(pictured, Sweet Dreams, 1990, 36x48)
Considering the trouble George had with the public regarding his nudes early on, it’s ironic that among his most popular Blue Dog paintings are his recreations of famous classical figurative works. The painting Right Place, Wrong Time (1991, 48x36) is based on The Turkish Bath by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1862.
The painting Wrong Century (1991, 24x36) is based on Edouard Manet’s Olympia from 1863.
With a handful of exceptions (including The Finish Line, 2001, 36x72, pictured below) these were the last of George’s nudes for many years. He painted a few figures in acrylic paint but in most cases was unhappy with the results.
He did experiment once with a silkscreen of a nude, Love Among the Ruins in 1994, referencing a Roman statue and placing it among the Louisiana oaks.
Frustrated with the fast-drying acrylic paints, George abandoned the nude figure for nearly a decade until discovering a water-based oil paint in 2002. With minimal fumes, the paint is safer with regards to his illness, especially when he works from his studio in Carmel, California, where the windows remain open and the paintings dry on the outside deck.
Excited by this new medium, he sketched once again as he re-examined his interest in the classical nude and prepared to paint in oil.
Over a three-year period beginning in 2002, George developed a series called Bodies. To my astonishment, this included more than a dozen paintings relegated to the closet. For the first time since I’d known him, I watched George pursue his vision of excellence by both rejecting and learning from his own work.
This was different from the overlapping series, a collection of abstract and expressionistic works called Hurricanes, painted during 2002 and 2003, when there were no mistakes.
These nudes remind me that George is still a student when he approaches his canvas. Each painting is a puzzle to be solved and with Bodies, at least in the beginning, there were more failures than successes.
(pictured, George Rodrigue in his Carmel studio, 2003; the two paintings on the counter are ones he rejected; the ones on the easel and floor eventually become part of Bodies and are shown here unfinished)
Rather than paint over the rejected works, George studied them. This process goes all the way back to his early landscape paintings thirty years before, when he realized that underneath each painting existed about a dozen rejects. At one point he forced himself to leave a painting as is, even if he was unhappy with it, so that he could look back and see what he’d done, learning from his mistakes and moving forward in his art.
After more than a year devoted to this project, George completed his first (to his mind) successful Bodies painting (Untitled, 2003, 40x30).
Once he found this direction, the others followed over many months.
He then scanned the images into his computer and played with their color and design, creating ‘remastered digital prints.’ He describes these works on paper, as opposed to the original paintings, as the completed Bodies artwork.
In addition, George does refer sometimes to Bodies as an extension of his on-going series, Jolie Blonde, which began with his rendition of an imaginary female figure in 1974. (For more on this see the post Jolie Blonde to Bodies).
It’s interesting to note that it was Bodies that consumed George when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. In fact, we were in Houston for a premiere exhibition of these works when the storm hit the Gulf Coast. Immediately, George abandoned not only Bodies, but also painting of any kind, devoting his time and energy to Blue Dog Relief once he returned to his easel.
This year for the first time since Katrina, George will spend several uninterrupted months painting in his Carmel studio. He’s quite taken with the water-based oils and used them to paint a series of landscapes just last year, so I would not be surprised to see these paints factor into his work.
He has mentioned Bodies several times, and so it’s possible that we’ll see further development in this series or some other exploration of the human figure. However, I am ever mindful of George’s favorite expression,
“I refuse to predict what I’m going to paint next.”
Postscript: Indiscretion (A Nude Addendum)
For a related post, visit "Nature Girl (The Art of Modeling)"