The Day the Blue Dog Turned Pale

George Rodrigue in his studio, 2009. CC By-SA 4.0

George Rodrigue, 1944-2013, was a Louisiana born artist of Cajun descent, best known for his “Blue Dog” paintings and prints. The series began when he received a commission to illustrate a Cajun ghost story. He chose the legend of the loop-garou, the werewolf, and modeled the image on a photo of Tiffany, a little dog who had been his studio companion and had recently died. The Blue Dog become his signature image and won him an international following.

“People who have seen the Blue Dog painting always remember it,” [Rodrigue] was quoted as saying. “They are really about life, about mankind searching for answers. 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.” (1)

On the night of September 11, 2001, when the nation was reeling after the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, Rodrigue went to his studio and began a painting which he finished at 5:00 am the next morning. He called it God Bless America and created an edition of 1000 large silk screen prints from the painting. He donated all the revenue from the print sales, $500,000, to the Red Cross.

“I first thought to paint the dog black, as if in mourning,” he said on September 12. “Instead I painted it without color at all, the blue joy drained by shock and grief. (Some people have commented that the lack of color reminds them of the television footage of debris-covered people running on the streets of New York City.) For many years the dog has had yellow, happy eyes. On this day, however, the eyes are red, indicating a heavy heart.

I am proud to be from the United States of America. It is our spirit, strong in the symbol of our flag, which will mend our broken hearts and allow us to use these events to strengthen our courage and compassion.”

Mary and I drove to Carmel in November of that year, in part to escape the news cycles. While we were there, we stopped by Rodrigue’s California gallery and saw these prints. I’ve never forgotten the image of the pale dog with its haunted eyes.

It was beautiful on the coast that fall. For a time, the nation was united and most of the world stood with us. When Randy Jackson almost single handedly led the Diamondbacks to their first World Series win that week, in (as far as I know), the first Series played in November, it was easy to pick up Rodrigue’s sense of optimism. Miracles could happen. Yes, our broken hearts would mend, and yes our courage and compassion would grow. Except things did not turn out that way.

George Rodrigue died in December, 2013, at the age of 69, of lung cancer. He blamed his use of powerful solvents in a small, unventilated studio when he was starting out as an artist. It’s sad to think of the work he was never able to give the world. At the same time, it’s almost a blessing that he never saw how we, as a nation, squandered the unity and goodwill that was ours in the wake of the first disaster of the new century.

I’ve long thought that as individuals and as groups, most of our learning comes either from wisdom or disasters. Wisdom is in short supply these days, and if a million dead of covid is not a big enough disaster to make us stop and question what we’re doing, it’s not pleasant to ask what comes next.

George Rodrigue is no longer here, but the pale dog remains. He hasn’t regained his color, and the happy yellow of his eyes seems a long way away.

1 thought on “The Day the Blue Dog Turned Pale

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s