Painter George Rodrigue and The Blue Dog Series

by Kristin Urban

The little blue dog with triangle shaped ears and piercing yellow eyes seems to stare and follow every person that looks in her direction. Even if you haven’t heard of the Cajun artist George Rodrigue or The Blue Dog, you’ve almost certainly seen an image from the famous painting series of the blue-and-yellow dog.

In art from ancient cave walls and in Medieval England, dogs have been visible in reliefs, paintings, prayer books, coats of arms, and more for thousands of years. But, as art historian Robert Rosenblum contends in his book, The Dog in Art: Rococo to Post-Modernism, the dog didn’t frequently appear as the primary subject until the Rococo period. Then, during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and especially the twentieth centuries, the dog was artistically displayed as a companion, a hunter, a mother, and as the lone subject. Even the great Picasso celebrated dogs in his works.

But The Blue Dog series has held people captive in an unprecedented way. Rodrigue’s Blue Dog paintings have been purchased by the likes of Tom Brokaw, who bought a painting for $173,000, and they have appeared on the set of Friends. Rodrigue painted the same dog, the “blue dog,” in the same position, in front of deserts, beaches, and cypress trees. He painted the dog with cowboy hats, next to other dogs, and alongside Whoopi Goldberg, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton.

Mr. Rodrigue said in an interview with The New York Times that “people say the dog keeps talking to them with the eyes, always saying something different.” Rodrigue did something with The Blue Dog series that artists strive to do. He forced the viewer to stop, take pause, stare into the depths of another’s eyes, and contemplate their own life and soul. He managed to do this through the eyes of dog.

The Blue Dog paintings began in 1984 with a scruffy little dog named Tiffany. A small black-and-white dog, Tiffany was Mr. Rodrigue’s dog, and she had passed away four years earlier in 1980. Tiffany had big, brown (not yellow) eyes. Rodrigue was looking for a photograph of the dog, and found a simple picture of Tiffany: just the little dog sitting on a patch of grass. He painted her likeness from that photograph.

Rodrigue didn’t paint her out of sentimentality, but rather for inspiration. He was working on a painting for a book series on Cajun ghost stories. With no real loup-garou, or Cajun werewolf, being present in the story he was painting for, Rodrigue wanted to insert the terrifying folklore dog he had learned about from his mother into the painting.

The photograph of the sitting Tiffany, with her bat-like ears and startling stare provided the model he needed to paint the loup-garou. In the photograph, Tiffany leans forward and is alert; all of her attention is focused on the camera, or at least on the eyes behind the camera. It was this stance and her simple shape which made the photo a good loup-garou model. Wendy Rodrigue, Mr. Rodrigue’s wife, writes on her blog that it wasn’t Tiffany that her husband was painting.

It was the loup-garou, with Tiffany as the model.Rodrigue may not have intended to continue painting the loup-garou, but he ended up doing just that. Her stillness, vulnerability, and mesmerizing eyes appeared in canvas after canvas. Not yet called “the blue dog,” the image doesn’t look like any real dog would, especially with the eerie yellow eyes and sky-blue fur. She looks more like a sticker over the background; not really part of the world she was painted in, but not of this world either. There was something about the dog that stayed with Rodrigue, and he needed to paint her.

The dog haunted him, as it would haunt viewers. Throughout the 1980s, the loup-garou and ghost dog appeared with Rodrigue’s typical cypress trees in the background. It wasn’t until 1990, when Rodrigue heard the term “blue dogs” in reference to his paintings at an art show in Los Angeles, that Rodrigue began to embrace The Blue Dog.

In 1991, the dog appeared for the first time without a Louisiana or Cajun background behind her, and the Blue Dog series officially emerged. Rodrigue later realized that The Blue Dog gripped its viewers through her yellow eyes. Rodrigue said in a New York Times interview about The Blue Dog that “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 wide eyes are said to mirror back to the viewer their own questions and concerns about life.The Blue Dog became a symbol for humans and the human condition. She could be placed anywhere, travel around the world, become famous, and sit next to powerful people, but she still always had the same look of wonderment in her eyes. She continued to question the viewer, to cause the viewer to look deep into her eyes and to address life’s inner questions. Rodrigue managed to create an image that caused people to question what it means to be human by making them peer into the eyes of a dog.