On the evening of Dec. 14, the art world was stunned to learn of the death of Louisiana's famed "Blue Dog" artist George Rodrigue. He died in a Houston hospital after a long fight against cancer. He was 69. George left behind an extraordinary, four-decade legacy of brilliant (if sometimes misunderstood) art and many saddened friends.
I was among those honored to call George a close friend for more than 30 years. We met in 1980, when I was a political reporter for The Times-Picayune working on a series about vote fraud in rural Acadiana. I previously had seen his beautiful picture-and-essay book, The Cajuns of George Rodrigue, while attending a party in the French Quarter. I was immediately captivated by George's haunting renditions of bygone Acadians in their culturally distant world. While my friends enjoyed the party, I literally could not put down that book.
When my work took me to the Lafayette area a year or so later, I knocked on George's door one afternoon and introduced myself. We spent the next four hours talking about art, Cajuns and life. Thus began our long friendship.
Later that year, I wrote the first major story to appear in New Orleans about George and his work — a cover story in the daily newspaper's Sunday supplement, Dixie Roto magazine. The cover photo showed George standing beside one of his iconic works, a 6-foot-tall portrait of Huey Long. The next day, George opened his first public exhibit in New Orleans — in the relatively cramped lobby of a savings and loan at 301 St. Charles Ave. That was the humble beginning of New Orleans' long love affair with George and his work.
It was not love at first sight on the part of the local art crowd. Despite the worldwide acclaim George ultimately would gain, the snoots who then ruled New Orleans' art roost did not rush to embrace him or his work. To his great credit, George never begrudged any of those who initially snubbed him. In fact, when former critics finally embraced him, he welcomed them into his world with the same warmth he extended to the stranger from New Orleans who knocked on his door in 1980. That, to me, was the hallmark of George's character.
Though I know precious little about art, in George's case I had the honor of knowing the artist. Over the years, George opened himself and his world to me in many conversations, few of which I recorded in note form, though I did write several more stories about him for Gambit. The first was a cover story about the Blue Dog sensation in the early 1990s, another previewed his record-setting show at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) in 2008.
Some have criticized George for painting the Blue Dog over and over, but such criticism missed the point of George's work entirely — and underestimated the enduring appeal of the Blue Dog. While the Blue Dog as a subject struck casual observers as the same thing in painting after painting, in truth George made every Blue Dog unique in some way. Each was an expression, and an extension, of George himself.
George said the reason the Blue Dog enjoyed such popularity was because everyone could see something different, something uniquely personal, in the flashing yellow eyes of the ubiquitous canine. He later revealed in one of his books, Blue Dog Man, that the Blue Dog and the artist had become one. In life, the model for the Blue Dog was his beloved pet Tiffany, who patiently sat by his side while he painted. In his art, Tiffany (since departed) and George were on an artistic journey together, traveling through time and space. They made quite a pair.
The Blue Dog brought George tremendous commercial success and worldwide acclaim. His patrons included U.S. presidents, celebrities and captains of industry. The Blue Dog became an icon for Absolut vodka, Xerox printers and conservative Democrats on Capitol Hill. George opened galleries in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and his work was exhibited in virtually every art capital of the world. In 1994, he reigned as king of the Washington Mardi Gras.
Yet, for all his fame, George remained the same guy who once sold his paintings out of the trunk of his car. To be sure, he enjoyed the fruits of his success, but deep down he was still the kid who first learned to paint when, as a child stricken with polio, his mother gave him a paint-by-numbers kit to help him pass the time. In many ways, that first experience with painting was metaphoric of George's entire career — he confronted adversity by turning it into something beautiful and then sharing it with the world.
Shortly before I met George in 1980, my uncle, an artist in Lafayette, described him as "just a great big kid." He meant it as a tender compliment — that George never lost his childlike love of life and people. To me, that was always part of the secret of George's success as an artist; he remained true to himself. He changed the art world; the art world did not change him.
In many ways George was an intensely private person, but he also was incredibly generous. Not many people know that George was an Eagle Scout. Years later, he was honored by the Boy Scouts of America with the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award.
True to his Boy Scout training, George gave back to the community many times over. Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he painted a ghostly tribute to the victims called God Bless America and donated the proceeds — at least $500,000 — to the American Red Cross. After Hurricane Katrina, he painted several Blue Dogs and donated the proceeds to United Way, the International Child Art Foundation and the Red Cross. In 2009 he founded the George Rodrigue Foundation for the Arts, which has raised millions for college scholarships for Louisiana high school artists. And that's just what's public. In countless private acts of kindness, George gave of himself to others in need.
Above all, those of us who knew and loved George will miss his infectious, boyish humor. He had a wonderful belly laugh, and he laughed often with friends. When we learned of his passing, my wife Margo and I recalled the time he drew a pen-and-ink picture on a linen napkin for us at the Washington Mardi Gras ball. It was Valentine's Day 1987. I asked George if he would draw something for us on the one-year anniversary of our engagement. He promptly sketched a bayou scene with a pier, a bayou and an oak tree, with a sign on the pier that read, "Clancy's Landing." He then inscribed the napkin, "To My Love Margo and Whatcha-Muh-Call-It." We all laughed long that night. It's still our favorite among the many examples of George's work that we are privileged to own.
George's laughter and his art were his escape, I think, from what one admirer once called "the profound sadness" that inhabits the Cajun soul. Just as blues singers pour out their sadness in song, George poured out his profound Cajun sadness every time he put brush to canvas. That left him with only joy, which he shared generously with his family, friends and admirers.
George fought a courageous battle against cancer, and he did so out of the public eye. That, too, showed his great character. When his first bout with the disease seemed to end with a complete cure, the first thing he did was gather with friends at every opportunity. That was just a year ago. We all exhaled then, thanking Providence that we would have George for many more years. But too soon the cancer returned and took him, and now we are left with our own profound sadness, along with many happy memories that we will always cherish.
George is survived by his devoted wife Wendy, his two sons Andre and Jacques, and many, many friends.
Farewell, Blue Dog Man. I hope you and Tiffany continue your beautiful journey.