Artist George Rodrigue leaves a unique La. legacy

Not many artists earn the type of fame and acclaim during their life that George Rodrigue did, but then again, not many artists are like the famed “Blue Dog” painter.

“He was as unique as an artist as Louisiana is as a state,” former U.S. Sen. John Breaux said Sunday.

Rodrigue’s unique voice became silent late Saturday when he died in a Houston hospital after a long bout with cancer.

The New Iberia native gained national acclaim with his Blue Dog paintings in the 1990s, but former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a fellow New Iberia native who counted Rodrigue as a close, personal friend, said Sunday his depictions of Cajun people in everyday life, like women at a cake-bake contest, and the unique way he portrayed them was what made him special.

“We’ve lost an iconic guy who looked at the beauty of Louisiana, who looked at the people about their ways and he turned ordinary things into really special pieces of art in his unique style, usually a very dark background and then he highlighted the people with whites and very bright colors,” she said. “It shows the people who were important in the landscape that was mystical and special.”

Their relationship goes back several decades.

Her husband, Raymond “Coach” Blanco, taught American history to Rodrigue at Catholic High of New Iberia more than 50 years ago.

“The big thing with George is, as I look back, he was bound and determined to do something great in the art world,” Raymond Blanco said, adding he was sure the high school did not offer art classes back then, but Rodrigue was always drawing and doodling.

When Kathleen Blanco was elected governor in 2004, the walls of the governor’s mansion were adorned with art from older generations and she wanted to liven things up with modern works.

“I said, ‘George, I need some comfort art around me. If you have anything just hanging around, could we please borrow it for a while to hang in the mansion,’ ” she said. “He showed up with about seven or eight pieces that he lent to our collection and they were really beautiful,” Kathleen Blanco said.

Besides being a world-renowned artist, Rodrigue also donated his time and talents to many organizations over the years.

In 2009, he formed the George Rodrigue Foundation for the Arts, a nonprofit organization that promotes youth arts educational programs around the state.

He also did not hesitate to donate a painting to help out worthy groups or organizations.

On June 6, 2011, the LSU Museum of Art unveiled George Rodrigue’s painting, “Number One Tiger Fan.”

The painting features Rodrigue’s signature Blue Dog wearing an LSU football jersey with the No. 1 on her chest and sleeves. The painting still hangs in the museum, occupying the better part of a gallery wall.

Rodrigue created the painting as a means of fundraising for the museum, the Rodrigue Foundation and the Tiger Athletic Foundation. Limited edition prints were made from the painting and cost $500 apiece. Special edition prints of “A Number One Tiger Fan” were $50,000.

“That’s just the kind of man George was,” longtime friend Robert Shelton, an attorney in Lafayette, said. “He was always ready to help out, and he was a 1,000 percent first class guy.”

Jolie Shelton was just as much a friend to Rodrigue as her husband.

“This is very hard for us,” Jolie Shelton said. “George was a great friend for many, many years, and he will be very, very missed. He has left a wonderful legacy for his family, and he will live through his artwork.”

The Sheltons collected some of Rodrigue’s earlier paintings, most of which depicted the Cajun culture. Those paintings have since been donated to the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

“George was a fixture not only in the broader market around the country, but his Blue Dog was global,” Mark Tullos, the director of the Louisiana State Museum system and former director of the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum, said. “Yet he kept his roots in Louisiana supporting causes here. He would create a work in support of a museum, and that’s the biggest loss for everyone — someone who was so devoted to his state.”

Many people perceive Rodrigue’s Blue Dog as male, Natalie Nault, LSU Museum of Art’s curator, has said. The artist actually based the Blue Dog on his late studio dog, Tiffany, when he was developing an image for the loup-garou for a book of Cajun ghost stories, she has said. The loup-garou is Louisiana’s legendary werewolf.

While Rodrigue never intended for his Blue Dog to represent a political party, it eventually became the symbol of moderate to conservative democrats in Congress who were dubbed “Blue Dog” Democrats.

“His painting of the Blue Dog, Tiffany, wasn’t done for the political party, but it just was a natural coming together,” Breaux, a Democrat, said.

Breaux said he is a big fan of Rodrigue’s work and estimated he had more than 10 Blue Dog paintings in his home and office at lobbying firm Patton Boggs.

But it is not Rodrigue’s paintings that Breaux will remember most about the Cajun ambassador — it is Rodrigue’s stint as king of Mardi Gras in Washington D.C., years ago.

“He was the only king in all the years that I’ve been going, which is about 40 years, that ever rode in the parade in a black leather jacket as opposed to the king’s costume, but that was the uniqueness of George Rodrigue,” Breaux said, laughing. “He wasn’t going to be the king, he was going to be George Rodrigue — who happened to be the king.”