George Rodrigue (1944 – 2013) was a schoolboy just beginning to discover his artistic talents in 1952 when country music star Hank Williams hit the national record charts with Jambalaya, a joyous romp that celebrated crawfish pie, file gumbo, pirogues and hog-wild Saturday night parties fueled by home-brewed beverages in fruit jars.
The imagery probably seemed perfectly natural to Rodrigue, who was born and raised in New Iberia, Louisiana, and came from French and Cajun ancestry. But to the rest of the country the song served as a delightful, eye-opening introduction to the exotic bayou culture of Southwest Louisiana.
That curiosity became a national obsession two decades later when charismatic Opelousas, Louisiana, native Paul Prudhomme emerged as one of the country’s first celebrity chefs by touting the rustic cuisine he was serving at the New Orleans restaurants Commander’s Palace and K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen. The allure of blackened redfish, Andouille sausage and Tabasco-spiked shrimp etouffee also sparked interest in broader aspects of Cajun culture – its music, art, geography, folkways and history.
And there to capture the rich flavor of the region on canvas was Rodrigue, now a full-fledged artist launching a career. Rodrigue’s works evoked the dark, swampy landscapes and the hardscrabble lives of the people who lived there amid an Acadian culture that was thought to be dying. Food and dining traditions were popular themes of his work, as expressed through paintings such as Aioli Dinner, A Toast to Cajun Food and Selling Crawfish at Butte La Rose, and portraits of native chefs such as Prudhomme and Justin Wilson.
In 1979 Rodrigue loaned 20 of his Cajun paintings for use in Talk About Good II, a cookbook produced to raise funds for the Junior League of Lafayette. In the book’s commentary on A Toast to Cajun Food, he wrote, “Cajun food reflects a way of life. Shown here is a traditional all-day feast, which reflects the ‘joie de vivre,’ which the Cajuns have kept throughout their history. They toast a good life and good food and the land they have come to love in South Louisiana.”
Rodrigue’s career was transformed forever in the early 1990s when the Blue Dog entered his life. The haunting image, inspired by a werewolf creature – the loup-garou – from a Cajun legend, evolved into a vehicle for Rodrigue to, in his words, “comment on life today,” shifting his focus following decades of preserving the past. The Blue Dog struck a chord with art enthusiasts worldwide and became an enduring pop art icon.
As his fame spread via museum exhibitions and personal appearances, Rodrigue continued to serve as a cultural ambassador for Cajun Country. The State of Louisiana appointed him Artist Laureate, and the Center for Louisiana Studies awarded him the James William Rivers Prize, honoring “persons who have contributed outstanding scholarly work about the culture, history, and art of Louisiana.” Rodrigue received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and the National Boy Scouts of America presented him with their highest honor, the Distinguished Eagle Award.
Throughout, his friendships with chefs such as Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse spawned unique collaborations of art and food, such as Rodrigue’s Heat in the Kitchen which premiered at the Lagasse foundation’s celebrated fundraiser, Carnival du Vin.
Throughout his life, Rodrigue cultivated a passion for fine food and drink that embraced not just the cuisine of his native region but the wider culinary world as well. That community embraced him in turn: In 2006, highly regarded Napa, CA, winemakers Heidi Barrett and her partner John Schwartz chose the Rodrigue painting Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? as the label art for the 2006 vintage of their Amuse Bouche wine, a high-end, small-production red blend. That put him in the company of Wayne Thiebaud, LeRoy Neiman, and other renowned American artists whose works have adorned the bottle.
In 2000 Rodrigue achieved a long-held dream by opening the Blue Dog Café in Lafayette, to serve as a cultural hub for the region. At the restaurant, now owned and operated by Rodrigue’s sons André and Jacques and George’s long-time friend, Steve Santillo, diners can view some of the artist’s most popular works, many of them food-themed, of course, as well as sample a menu of modern takes on classic Cajun cuisine from culinary director Ryan Trahan, the 2018 King of American and Louisiana Seafood. Several days a week, local musicians entertain diners with a variety of popular musical styles, from Cajun to contemporary pop.
Along with his art galleries in Lafayette, New Orleans and Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, the Blue Dog Café serves as the ultimate tribute to the man who once observed, “We have a different cuisine, we have a different music, we love living here and we’ve kept our culture intact.”
Learn more about George Rodrigue on www.georgerodrigue.com.
For a detailed history of the artist and his work visit Wendy’s blog, featuring more than 200 essays on Rodrigue, his early years, and current projects. www.wendyrodrigue.com.