The story of George Rodrigue and Louisiana's other state dog (the blue one)
By Contributing writer
NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
THEN: In 1980, Louisiana artist George Rodrigue was approached about contributing to a book of ghost stories that would be sold at the 1984 World's Fair. Known for his folksy, Cajun-inspired works, Rodrigue painted around 40 canvases. One of the stories was about an evil guard dog, and in illustrating it Rodrigue drew inspiration from the Cajun loup-garou, or werewolf, legend. The result was an oddly confrontational dog with red eyes and blue fur. The blue tint was meant to indicate the grey-blue light of the night sky. That painting, "Watchdog," was published in the book, but it took years before it became the Blue Dog we know today.
NOW: The Blue Dog evolved from a one-time guard dog to a singular figure in Rodrigue's work. After the first painting, he changed the dog's eyes from red to yellow, still calling the character a loup-garou. All the while, Rodrigue continued painting his Cajun portraits. At some point, though, he realized the enormous potential and focused on expanding the series. Rodrigue passed away from lung cancer in 2013, but the Blue Dog lives on in his galleries on Royal Street in New Orleans; in Lafayette, La.; and in Carmel, Calif., as well as in the galleries and homes of fans around the world.
When trying to come up with the right figure for the Loup-garou, Rodrigue tried a couple of different figures until he stumbled upon a photo of his family dog, who had passed several years prior. Tiffany was a little terrier-spaniel, and in the photo she sat, ears up, looking straight into the camera. He had found the Blue Dog's stance.
Some of Rodrigue's most famous paintings outside of his Blue Dog series are portraits and scenes of Cajun people in Louisiana. "The Aioli Dinner" is one, inspired by an old family photograph. In it, a large group of people, all dressed in white, sits at a giant table surrounded by the bayou. This was also his first painting that included people.
Rodrigue had never thought of his loup-garou as a blue dog until he heard gallery visitors referring to the canine paintings as blue dogs. This was nearly 10 years after his first "Watchdog" painting. The reaction inspired him to explore the figure further, resulting in hundreds of Blue Dogs today.
The Blue Dog image isn't limited to art galleries. A 16-foot-tall, three-sided aluminum sculpture of the dog, valued at the time of its 2010 installation at $750,000, watches over traffic at Veterans Memorial Boulevard and Causeway Boulevard in Metairie.
Rodrigue painted portraits throughout his career. Many of the Cajun paintings were based on old photographs, but he didn't paint only people from the past. In fact, he painted former presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, in addition to other famous figures.
Although Rodrigue studied at the University of Southwestern Louisiana and later at the Art Center College of Design in California, he never finished a degree program. He returned to Louisiana following his father's death and worked at an advertising agency in Lafayette, then quit after only a year to paint full-time. Despite negative reviews of his early work, Rodrigue never stopped painting.
During the 2016 presidential election cycle, when Louisiana voters left the voting booth they were given "I voted" stickers adorned with an image of the Blue Dog in front of an American flag.
The popularity of his work allowed Rodrigue to help New Orleans when it needed it most. His Blue Dog Relief drive raised $700,000 for hurricane relief after Katrina and Rita. The George Rodrigue Foundation continues to help fund arts education.
After his death, a public funeral Mass was said at St. Louis Cathedral. The next day, the artist was buried in his hometown of New Iberia, La.
"People who have seen a Blue Dog painting always remember it. They are really about life, about mankind searching for answers," Rodrigue once told The New York Times in discussing his canine creation. "The dog never changes position. He just stares at you. And you're looking at him, looking for some answers, 'Why are we here?,' and he's just looking back at you, wondering the same. The dog doesn't know. You can see this longing in his eyes, this longing for love, answers."
The Blue Dog is a figure borne of Louisiana history, one developed by Louisiana's most famous contemporary artist and which is now recognized the world over. "It's kind of become a symbol of New Orleans and the (post-Katrina) recovery," Rodrigue said in a 2010 interview with The Times-Picayune. "People react to it; that it's our dog. The city, the state; it's become part of the culture here."