O What a Night! Gala Artist Highlight Jonathan Hodge

O What a Night! Gala is this Saturday, October 21, 2023.

A black-tie affair, the glamorous evening will honor New Orleans based artist Luis Cruz Azaceta with the 2023 Opus Award. The gala will feature a seated dinner, live music and a live and silent art auction. Presided over by the renowned auctioneer Nicholas Lowry of Swann Galleries and PBS’ Antique Roadshow, the live auction will feature exclusive, major works from Southern artist like this stunning piece by Jonathan Hodge.


Jonathan Hodge, Orpheus Blues, 2023, Oil on linen, 30 X 30 inches, Courtesy of the artist

Jonathan Hodge is a classical realist painter and teacher with a keen interest in subjects involving the South. Hodge grew up in Covington, Louisiana and earned a B.F.A from the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio. He also studied the human form under the head anatomist of a cadaver lab before studying classical painting under Juliette Aristides in Seattle. He presented his work at the 7th International Conference on the Arts in Society in the U.K. and has been featured in publications including “American Art Collector Magazine,” “Realism Today” and “The Art Renewal Center.” His work has been exhibited at the Haynes Galleries and the Maryhill Museum and hangs in numerous collections including the Aslan Foundation and The Columbus Club. Currently, he is developing a new body of work and teaching at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts.

With Orpheus Blues, Hodge adds his mark to a 2,500 year history of art surrounding Orpheus. The mythical Thracian poet, musician and prophet has been the subject of countless poems, plays, operas, films and most importantly, paintings. With this work, Hodge places Orpheus directly into New Orleans history and folklore by portraying Orpheus as Buddy Bolden, the legendary cornetist often regarded as the father of Jazz as we know it. Both the mythical and legendary musicians lived tragic lives and left legacies that resonate to this day. Using time-honored techniques and drawing inspiration from scores of sources, Hodge has created a Southern allegorical painting that responds boldly to the canon of contemporary classical figuration.

Orpheus Blues is a 30 x 30 inch oil painting on herringbone linen. While the idea for it was born 7 years ago, it wasn’t until the Hodge returned home to New Orleans that the idea solidified and fully manifested. “I first did several thumbnail sketches before finding a model,” he explains. “I also did sketches of cypress knees at the ponds in Metairie Lawn Cemetery where my grandmother is buried, and made sketches of alligators at the pond in Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville.”

Only a single blurry image of Buddy Bolden has ever been found, so Hodge decided to work with a living model to represent Bolden as Orpheus – eventually choosing local artist Shabez Jamal (who has a piece in O What a Night! Gala’s silent auction this year). Beginning with a grisaille underpainting, Hodge kept the shadows thin and transparent and his lights thick and opaque. Slowly, he built up thick impastos and sanded them down until he achieved the textures he was looking for. Finally, he glazed the monochrome underpainting a single color – a dark rich turquoise he sees as emblematic of the swamp. 

The Orpheus myth has been the subject of painters for over 2,000 years. Yet it was two painters, in particular, that inspired the composition and technique of Hodge’s Orpheus Blues. “I was influenced by the color palette and mystery of Belgian Symbolist Jean Delville’s painting of Orpheus and his lyre,” Hodge recounts. “It is a very atmospheric and bizarre image, and I suspect he worked in transparent layers over a monochromatic underpainting to achieve the cool blue in his rendition.” Delville’s The Death of Orpheus (Orphée mort) was painted in 1893 and is held in the collection of the Guggenheim Museum, New York. A more contemporary inspiration came from Spanish painter, Jordi Diaz Alamà – most notably his series Inferno, an epic painterly interpretation of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Hodge also drew inspiration from the vastly different interpretations of the Orpheus myth in film. “In college, I saw Orphée directed by the French Surrealist Jean Cocteau. It is a unique vision of the life of Orpheus and uses a poet and car radio as a catalyst for the storytelling,” he said. “Around this time, I also watched Black Orpheus directed by the French director Marcel Camus. This film was set in Rio de Janeiro during carnival, and is a very different interpretation of Orpheus. I fell in love with the dancing and costumes which reminded me of Mardi Gras here in Louisiana.” 

But most importantly, the inspiration for Orpheus Blues is drawn from the resonant lives of two figures: Orpheus and Bolden.  Charles Joseph “Buddy” Bolden (1877 – 1931) was a New Orleans cornetist who is widely regarded as the inventor of Jazz. Bolden innovated popular music by combining Western harmonic traditions with African rhythmic traditions (which he likely witnessed in Congo Square). Building upon common marching band structures, he synthesized rags, blues, folk songs, hymns and vocal styles from the Black church, and even French opera to create a wholly new musical form. From 1900 to 1907, Bolden was the most popular musician and band leader in the city. In 1907, Bolden was institutionalized for a mental illness at the Louisiana State Insane Asylum, where he spent the rest of his life.  His influence continues to this day, despite the fact that there are no known surviving recordings of his music.

Orpheus was said to be the first musician in Greek mythology. According to legend, he was the king of Thrace and the son of a Muse. Given a lyre by the god Apollo, he created music so beautiful that it enchanted both man and beast. Women were drawn to his presence, animals would gather around him, and he even moved the gods with the power of his music. Yet tragedy struck after the death of his wife, when Orpheus was torn to pieces by Maenads, who threw his head into the River Hébros. His lyre and disembodied head (still singing) floated to Lesbos, where an oracle of Orpheus was established.

By portraying Buddy Bolden as Orpheus in Orpheus Blues, Hodge has illustrated the similarities between the two figures. Both changed the world with the power of their music. Both suffered tragic endings despite their talent and success. Both used virtuosity as a vehicle for immortality. In myth, Orpheus’s disembodied head continued to sing as it floated downriver with his lyre to the Aegean Sea. In Orpheus Blues, the head of Buddy Bolden and his cornet float through the Louisiana swamps, still singing – a symbol of artistic struggle to create and be remembered. It is a painting filled with mystery and intrigue, with formal acumen matching the strong narrative content of this deeply Southern allegorical painting. 

– Bradley Sumrall, Curator of the Collection, Ogden Museum of Southern Art

O What a Night! Gala raises critical funds for Ogden Museum’s exhibitions and programming. Come support the arts and culture of the South on October 21 while also joining us in honoring this year’s recipient of the OPUS Award, Luis Cruz Azaceta. 

Purchase your tickets today!