Blue Dog Man Delivers New Orleans

Blue Dog represents the preservation of Cajun culture and the interpretation of modern humans.

By Jennifer Grant

Credit: George Rodrigue Studios

George Rodrigue (1944 to 2013) was a painter intimately connected to the culture of New Orleans.  He once stated that his artistic life was dedicated to “graphically interpreting the Cajun culture.” Rodrigue was deeply affected by the encroachment that modern life made on the culture of his ancestors. His world famous Blue Dog sought to represent these bits of culture that were both visceral and sentimental to the visual artist.

Rodrigue began training at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in the 60s, but at the end of his freshman year, he was shuttled to the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. Rodrigue was only 19-years old and was already considered greatly advanced as a visual artist. He spent six intensive semesters before returning home to Louisiana.

George Rodrigue in his studio. Credit: Bayou Tech Museum

The Blue Dog series is based on the legend of loup-garou and these magnificent pieces catapulted Rodrigue into international fame. The loup-garou is a popular Cajun and French Canadian legend about a man with a wolf’s head. He is a shape shifter doomed to wander the swamps and forests, feeding on Christian children who fail to properly observe Lent (a 40-day observance of personal sacrifice and fasting in preparation for the resurrection of Jesus Christ). Indeed, the loup-garou is still commonly conjured to reel in wayward children.

Washington Blue Dog (1992) Oil on Canvas. Credit: George Rodrigue Studios

One of the most famous paintings in the Blue Dog series is, Washington Blue Dog, a print of which hangs in the office of the Blue Dog Democrats. Rodrigue never intended to create bureaucratic statements with his paintings, yet the piece is an obvious choice for the political group. It is reported that Rodrigue was not impressed with the association and, in fact, was quoted as saying, “I’ve spent the past twenty years trying to distance myself and my artwork from this connection.”

Rodrigue was once commissioned by the Republican Party to complete paintings of Presidents Ronald Regan and George H.W. Bush. While these are imbued with the compositional excellence expected of Rodrigue, he was quick to point out that this effort does not translate to Republican leanings.

We Will Rise Again (2005) Mixed Media, Acrylic on Canvas. Credit: George Rodrigue Studios

Perhaps the only quasi-political expression that Rodrigue made was in the emotional piece titled, “We Will Rise Again”. The acrylic on canvas painting features a drowning American flag, while Blue Dog still has his head above the water; Rodrigue said Blue Dog was “reaching for hope.”  This stunning visual artist was well-versed in meeting adversity with hope. He was diagnosed with polio in the third grade, and it was during these months of convalescing that Rodrigue first learned to paint.

We Will Rise Again was inspired by the events that followed the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Rodrigue and his family were displaced and the emotional impact of this can be seen in subsequent paintings exhibiting swirls that represent hurricanes and the untameable powers of the cosmos.

Of the experience, Rodrigue had this to say: “Those of us from South Louisiana grew up with the aftermaths of hurricanes Audrey, Betsy, Camille . . . and now Katrina. As with times before, “we will rise again.” Tears and rising water threaten to drown us. But don’t be deceived. The land may be under water, but the spirit of New Orleans and the culture of Louisiana hold their heads high.”

Money from the sale of We Will Rise Again prints were dedicated to New Orleans relief efforts.

My Baby Made a Clown of Me (1992) Acrylic on Canvas. Credit: George Rodrigue Studios

A new character, Red Dog, first appeared in 1990 as George Rodrigue started to reshape his own experience of Blue Dog. He was taking the loup-garou beyond the Cajun culture and perhaps returning the images to their darker roots. Blue Dog came to symbolize “good” and Red Dog was “evil.” Rodrigue would often speak of the Red Dog as having “the devil in her.” Some say this is a direct reference to his own Blue dog named Tiffany. In many ways, the Red Dog was needed for balance as the Blue Dog became less threatening as he morphed away from his loup-garou inspirations.

The Blues Can Hide a Bad Apple (1992) Oil on Canvas. Credit: George Rodrigue Studios

Rodrigue’s early landscapes always included the land, sky and an oak tree, a triad that Rodrigue insinuated lent freedom in form by giving consistency in composition. Rodrigue’s enormous talent served up numerous renditions of this composition (foreground, background, oak tree) that were always nouveau and engaging. The oak tree remained an important symbol of his Cajun past, and would appear again and again in later paintings.

I Have a Colorful Life (2013). Credit: George Rodrigue Studios

It is Absolut Vodka that first, in 1992, declared that George Rodrigue was a noteworthy pop artist. In that, Absolut Rodrigue became a central part of the vodka company’s media campaign, alongside Andy Warhol and Hans Godo Frabel.

Absolut Rodrigue (1993) Silkscreen. Credit: George Rodrigue Studios

George Rodrigue’s Blue Dog is a recognizable pop-art symbol. It has experienced its own transitions and growth, always at the time that Rodrigue underwent the same. The Blue Dog is immortal, but sadly, the world lost George Rodrigue to lung cancer in December, 2013.