Before Blue Dogs, Cajun folk life, and portraits, George Rodrigue painted hundreds of landscapes, a subject so important to his oeuvre that he continues to paint them today. (For a detailed history of Rodrigue's landscape paintings with both early and recent images, visit the post Early Oak Trees and a Regrettable Self-Portrait).
It was the Louisiana oak tree, specifically its strong shape against a small sky, which inspired George as early as 1969 and, just following his return from art school in Los Angeles, defined his style. But why not the cypress tree? After all, it is a beloved presence in south Louisiana, its trunk stretching high above the swamp, its knees poking above the grassy, thick water, and its branches dripping with moss. (My mom used to describe it as ‘gossamer icicles.')
Furthermore, for George personally the cypress tree would have made an interesting choice, because even today when we cross the Atchafalaya Basin, he laments,
“It was my ancestors, Wendy, the Cajuns, that destroyed the cypress trees. They cut ‘em all down.”
“The cypress tree is not an interesting shape.”
“There are no bowing branches and expanding trunks, and there is no sloping terrain or coulee. There’s just a straight stick on flat water or land.”
(pictured above, Untitled, 1969, 12x4 inches, oil on canvas, Rodrigue’s only acknowledged* painting of cypress trees)
George painted one canvas starring the cypress tree, completed just following some pivotal changes to both his art and career, due to the advice and assistance of several influential members of the Lafayette art community. Like his other paintings from this period, the canvas is dark, monochromatic, and painted to the frame.
It’s a painting he originally sold for fifty dollars and bought back just a few years ago at auction without any competition because, he says,
“No one ever would recognize it as mine.”
Today this small painting is important to George because to his mind it is not only a true one-of-a-kind, but also a part of his process and early development as an artist. I see this work as representing George Rodrigue on his artistic path**, indicated by the clearing in the trees, the river (a Cajun’s road) extending indefinitely, and the light in the distance.
Photograph by George Rodrigue, Jean Lafitte Park, Barataria Preserve
For a related post, see "Swamp Women"
*I reminded George that there are a few Blue Dog paintings that include cypress trees. He didn’t believe me! And when I showed him images, he requested I save them for another post, because “those trees are not the painting’s subject, and they don’t really count.”
**To me, the painting also acts as a visual interpretation of the advice George often quotes from art school. A professor explained that art is like a yardstick, with the Mona Lisa on one end and black paint on a black canvas on the other:
“You have to find your place somewhere along that stick and go up.”
Coming this Saturday: “Paintings for Wine Labels”