Search the Collections

Jean-Paul Riopelle
Birth Date: 
Birth Place: 
Death Date: 
Death Place: 
Île-aux-Grues, Québec
A Canadian Abstract Expressionist artist who spent much of his working life in France, Jean-Paul Riopelle achieved an international reputation during the last half of the 20th century. He produced over six thousand works during his career, including paintings, drawings, pastels, prints and sculptures. Innovative in his use of materials, late in his career he began creating works with spray paint. Riopelle was born in Montréal in 1923 and began taking drawing lessons at the age of ten. With his parents hoping he would become an architect, as was his father, Riopelle studied at the Montréal École Polytechnique for two years until 1942. He moved briefly to the École des beaux-arts and then to the École des Meuble, where he studied painting under Paul-Émile Borduas (1905-1960) until 1945. Borduas was a founder of Les Automatistes (the Automatists), a group of radical artists influenced by the Surrealists. Riopelle went to Paris in August of 1946, returning by way of New York City where he visited the studio of Stanley William Hayter (1901-1988), who worked there during the 1940s. In Montréal Riopelle married Françoise Lespérance and the couple promptly returned to Paris, where he arranged for an exhibition of works by Les Automatistes at the Galerie du Luxembourg in 1947. With his former teacher Borduas, Riopelle was one of the signers of an anti-establishment manifesto “Refus global” (“Total Refusal”), published in 1948. Although his works appeared in an exhibition of Surrealist works in 1947, Riopelle had turned to abstraction when Nina Dausset organized his first one-man exhibition in her Galerie La Dragonne in 1949. One of Riopelle’s abstract works, inspired by works of Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), was shown in the 1951 group exhibition “Véhémences confrontées” (“Vehement Confrontations”) at Dausset’s gallery; Pollock also exhibited in the show. During the 1950s Riopelle’s style matured as he used paint squeezed from the tube and layered on the canvas with a palette knife to create large, colorful works. He became friends with many of the expatriate American artists in Paris, including Sam Francis (1923-1994); he organized the first Parisian exhibition of Francis’s works at Dausset’s gallery in 1952. He also became friends with the author Samuel Beckett (1906-1989 and the sculptor Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966). Riopelle became known in New York as one of his works was included in the “Younger European Painters” exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in 1953 and the Pierre Matisse Gallery held a solo exhibition for him in 1954. Riopelle was one of the three artists representing Canada at the 1954 Venice Biennale. He represented Canada again at the Biennale again in 1962. Riopelle met the American Abstract Expressionist painter Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) in 1955. They later became companions, living together in Paris in 1959 and maintaining separate homes and studios near each other outside Giverny during the 1960s. Riopelle had previous made clay sculptures, but he began to have them cast in bronze in 1958, first exhibiting his bronzes in Paris in 1962. His works during the 1960s included pastels, lithographs and collages, and many of his works contain more explicit references to nature. Whether through Mitchell or Francis or perhaps from meeting Walasse Ting (1929-2010) during the year he spent in East Hampton, Long Island, N.Y. in 1960, Riopelle contributed a color lithograph to Ting’s 1964 book of poetry and prints, 1¢ Life, which also included lithographs by Francis and Mitchell. In the 1970s he traveled to Canada more frequently, often for hunting and fishing trips. His very large sculpture, “La Jouote” (“The Joust”) was cast in bronze in 1974 and installed at the Olympic Stadium in Montréal in 1976, later moved to Montréal’s business district. Riopelle began spending time on the Île-aux-Grues, in the St. Lawrence River east of Québec City as well as maintaining a studio at Sainte-Marguerite-du-Lac-Masson, north of Montréal. His relationship with Mitchell ended in 1979. A retrospective exhibition of his work was held in the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, in 1981. He divided his time between France and Canada during most of the 1980s, but moved permanently to Québec in 1989. The Montréal Museum of Fine Arts held a retrospective exhibition of Riopelle’s work in 1991. After Mitchell’s death in 1992, Riopelle painted a tribute to her, the large “Homage à Rosa Luxembourg” (“Tribute to Rosa Luxembourg,” 1992, Québec City: Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec), using acrylics and spray paint. He painted little thereafter, but created a series of engravings in 1993. In 1994 he purchased a house on the tip of the Île-aux-Grues, and divided his time between the island and Sainte Marguerite. Honors accorded him during his lifetime included the Companion of the Order of Canada and the Grand Officer of the National Order of Québec. He died on the Île-aux-Grues in 2002. (TNB 4/2014) Selected bibliography: Cogeval, Guy and Stéphane Aquin, ed. Riopelle. Exhibition catalog. Montreal: Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2006.