Blue dog. Possibly one of the most iconic pop art figures, has been everywhere from the permanent collection of the Smithsonian to the White House and then the George W. Bush Library, and has been seen all over the world everywhere from museum showcases to calendars and beverage coasters. His master, artist George Rodrigue who died at age 69 on December 14, has a legacy that deserves a bit more than the eight-bar obituaries of the AP and the New York Times.
The staring dog, his beloved passed-on pet, whom he painted into one of his Cajun Bayou scenes to explosive popularity, is part of sixteen other museum and permanent collections, and currently four feature collections.
Rodrigue published several best-selling art books, calendars, a children's book called Why is Blue Dog Blue and licensed the image to makers of wine, jewelry, sculptural works, calendars, and household items. Millions of people all over the world have incorporated Blue Dog into their lives with any of the licensed merchandise bearing its likeness.
The Blue Dog, that representation of George's lost pet, became much more. Away went its dark haunts in the moody or moving bayou paintings of his earlier Cajun days. In came pop Blue Dog: The chef; the Harley Rider; a pair of blue dogs riffing the Blues Brothers. One in the United States Capitol building was cherished by the "blue dog" Democrats as a badge of their conservative pride.
With galleries in New Orleans, L.A. and Carmel, CA., and homes in both places, Rodrigue was a rockstar of popular art who became that rarest of artist, one who enjoyed great wealth and fame in their lifetime.
His larger original canvases, which at the start of his career were selling for a few thousand dollars each were selling for $70,000 or more in the spring of 2013.
His collectors include some of the most successful people in the world. Oilman T. Boone Pickens, baseball magnate Nolan Ryan, and former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush are among his list of patrons.
His ability to connect with audiences through his art helped other arts and culinary arts projects. The posters from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival that sell for a super-premium took off in that fine trend when George created a poster of Louis Armstrong with Blue Dog in 1995. Rodrigue did two more with Louisiana Jazz icons Pete Fountain, and Al Hirt. The work spawned other commissions for posters which were equally successful.
He encouraged the next generation of artists through his George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts, and would frequently do painting seminars with them. Some of his best original canvases come from his paintings in these sessions, because working in front of a small audience of his rising peers seemed to inspire and energize him.
George used his art to help raise awareness of causes, and improve the profile of his beloved New Orleans and Louisiana. After Hurricane Katrina, Rodrigue lent the Blue Dog to causes ranging from restoring the 9th Ward to saving animals who had been lost or abandoned by their owners during the storm. He genuinely felt the loss when the levees broke and washed away a century of the culture and traditions of the people whom he held so dear.
Rodrigue had one other major obsession in his work: his wife, Wendy. His series of bright nudes, both with and without his other great love, Blue Dog, are some of his best works.
George was a big man who lived large and had a big heart. He had ten score the number of friends to every painting, and not because they were hangers-on to someone who was the Warhol-of-the-moment. He befriended an eclectic bunch, from billionaires and politicians to artists and eclectic restauranteurs like the late Rosalea Murphy of the famed Pink Adobe Restaurant in Santa Fe, to everyday folks. While he lived well, there was no pretension in his living. He was inclusive, not reclusive in his bear-hug embrace of the world.
What is it about the Blue Dog that given it such global, iconic appeal?
It stares out with eyes and an expression which can be interpreted so many ways that gave it an enigmatic quality. Juxtaposing the icon with everything from the American Flag to cowboy hats to an LSU jersey were amplifications of our modern consumerist culture.
Beyond that though, Rodrigue used his Blue Dog to explore all kinds of art motifs, moods, and emotions in dozens of other works which museums have found also represent the body of work of a serious artist who thankfully for all of us didn't take the world, or himself, too seriously.
A joyous light in the world who gave joy to millions, he will be missed.