George Rodrigue: a legacy launched by the Blue Dog

My Yellow Oak, oil on canvas, 2002, signed lower left, 36 by 48 inches, fetched $80,000 at New Orleans Auction Galleries in February 2013. Photo courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK — George Rodrigue (1944-2013) created art that has its roots in the Cajun country of southwest Louisiana, where he was born and raised, but his legacy in the art world is wholly as an American artist, not just as a Louisiana regional painter. His body of work has sometimes been unfairly reduced to just the whimsical Blue Dog paintings, but his career was much deeper and more layered.

Over 50 years, he went from painting local landscapes to genres scenes to his famous Blue Dog series, yet his works are not disparate themes or subjects but rather a collection of interconnected motifs and styles, which he seemed to effortlessly blend and marry to create powerful works of art. The symbolism from his Cajun works informed, and continued to appear in, his later works.

A common refrain in Rodrigue’s works was his abiding love for Louisiana. He painted to preserve what he viewed as a dying way of life and heritage. His early paintings of Louisiana bayous and swamps are steeped in Acadian lore and rich in symbolism.

Including one of the artist’s favorite motifs of great oak trees, Escort for the Kingfish, 1990, depicts Louisiana’s state police’s motor unit, dubbed the Cajun Highway Police. The oil sold in October 2016 for $60,000 at New Orleans Auction Galleries. Photo courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

It’s no surprise that early paintings like Watch Dog and Loup Garou, which grew out of Cajun stories his grandmother told him, launched his Blue Dog series., which has become world famous. The canine images graced not only Rodrigue’s canvases but also motorcycles, books and Absolut Vodka ads of the 1990s.

Before meeting George, Wendy Rodrigue — who would later marry the artist — was transfixed by his Loup Garou, which she saw in a gallery. “I put my hands on it. I couldn’t help myself. I thought it was the greatest piece of art I had ever seen,” she told Auction Central News. “That painting changed everything. It changed my life.”

Working to conserve and build on George’s legacy after his death, Wendy helped plan the 2018 exhibition of his later work at the Ohr-O’Keeffe Museum in Biloxi, Mississippi, and goes around the country, especially to schools, giving talks and displaying some of George’s original paintings so people can see the art up close as opposed to online or in books. “When you have the presence of a real painting, it’s texture and feeling. George used to say the thing that his paintings are about is contrast, and the contrast is really evident in person.”

George’s portrait of his beloved dog in Tiffany (1969-1981), who inspired his Blue Dog series, fetched $65,000 in October 2017 at New Orleans Auction Galleries. Photo courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Rodrigue mastered the art of scale in his works, and painting the dogs at eye level was a conscious decision, “…not only because it made a really riveting statement visually but also because it was symbolic that [the dog] was not beneath him,” she said. “That’s why his paintings are eye to eye. It gives the image real power so it can have an exchange with the viewer.”

“He portrayed the Blue Dog as equal to the oak trees and the people that also inhabited his compositions by painting them at eye level and discarding traditional notions of scale,” said Marney Robinson, Director of Paintings, Prints and Photography at Neal Auction Company in New Orleans. “His treatment of the Blue Dog with its unblinking and mysterious stare captivated viewers.” Robinson formerly was a curator at the New Orleans Museum of Art during its 2008 retrospective of Rodrigue’s work and was later hired by the artist for his foundation.

“The Blue Dog has an undeniable and resonating appeal to the public and collectors,” said Claudia Kheel, fine art specialist at New Orleans Auction Galleries in New Orleans. “The expressive Blue Dog, which the artist placed in a myriad of settings, became the artist’s most recognizable image. His beloved dog, Tiffany, who was his constant companion as he painted in his studio, became the inspiration for the Blue Dog series.”

Robinson said Rodrigue created an artistic phenomenon in a way that was uniquely his own. “The Blue Dog can represent different things to different people, but I think ultimately it was how George painted that makes his works resonate.”

This untitled 1994 oil painting was inspired by Frederic Remington’s Pony Express and earned $70,000 at New Orleans Auction Galleries in March 2014. Photo courtesy of New Orleans Auction Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

The artist worked in a variety of media, proucing paintings, prints, sculpture and works on paper. “Rodrigue transcended the regional marketplace and earned a national reputation for his paintings of Louisiana bayous, portraits of Louisiana locals and national political figures (including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton), and his Blue Dog paintings,” Kheel said. “With the publication of numerous books, recipient of prestigious awards, and a major retrospective exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art, Rodrigue’s place in the art world is well established. In 2009, the not-for-profit George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts was formed and became an advocate for the importance of visual arts in education.”

Of the artist’s multifaceted legacy, Robinson said, “I believe George’s choice early in his career to highlight his Cajun heritage and capture the Acadian culture on canvas just before it came to the forefront nationally will be a big part of his legacy. His work also continues to have a profound influence on schoolchildren worldwide – something that was very important to George.”

Chairman of the Board, 2010, in a custom hand-carved and painted Running Dogs frame brought $145,000 at Neal Auction Company in April 2015. Photo courtesy Neal Auction Company and LiveAuctioneers

The Blue Dog paintings are among the most desirable of Rodrigue’s artworks and generally perform very well at auction, with a few reaching six-figure prices. Rodrigue’s 2010 painting, Chairman of the Board, brought $145,000 at Neal Auction Company in April 2015, and two months later, his untitled (Yellow Moon) painting from 1990 fetched $112,500 there. New Orleans Auction Galleries has also handled many paintings by the artist, including his circa-1995 Blue Dog Looking for a Home, which sold in September 2015 for $90,000; and My Yellow Oak, 2002, for $80,000 in February 2013.

New collectors, Kheel said, should visit museums, galleries and auction houses to become better educated about Rodrigue’s work. “A good entry point to start collecting Rodrigue is to purchase works of art on paper and smaller-size paintings. In the end, a collector should buy what they like and enjoy having original artwork in their homes.”

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