Jean Paul Riopelle
“To draw outdoors, I had to build a makeshift workshop under a tent, in the backyard of our home, where I hung a light bulb. Then the rain started pouring. When I touched the light bulb, I was instantly electrified; a formidable jolt of art, come to think of it!”
– Jean Paul Riopelle | First artistic memories, 1931
Biography of Jean Paul Riopelle:
Jean Paul Riopelle is born in Montréal on October 7, 1923. He is the son of Anna and Léopold Riopelle.
The Training Years
Around 1936, Riopelle takes drawing and painting lessons with Henri Bisson, professor at Saint-Louis-de-Gonzague school, where he studies and exceeds expectations. Through his father, he meets Archibald Belaney, aka Grey Owl, who inspired Riopelle's passion for nature, wildlife and environment.
In 1942, after a preparatory year, Riopelle begins his studies at École Polytechnique de Montréal. During the evenings and on Sundays he continues to draw, "just about anything, nature". His first landscapes date back to this period. He also takes correspondence courses in architecture, showing a particular interest for perspective. He is also a keen photographer.
In 1943, Riopelle takes a few classes at École des beaux-arts, and enrols at École du meuble. That is where he meets Professor Paul-Émile Borduas, with whom he creates his first abstract paintings. He works with a few of his schoolmates in a shed in Montréal. This is also the birthplace of the group later referred to as Les Automatistes, which will include, among others, illustrious names such as Marcel Barbeau, Pierre and Claude Gauvreau, Jean-Paul Mousseau, Fernand Leduc, Marcelle Ferron and Françoise Sullivan. Riopelle also visits painters. Later, he will state that "the most important influence on me was certainly Ozias Leduc. When I visited him, he was an old man living in a shack, everyone thought he was crazy. He was a great painter. He could easily spend three, four years on a painting. When he painted a tree, he followed its progress meticulously through the seasons. In the spring, he put buds on the branches; in the autumn, he made leaves fall; in the winter, he put snow on it. Gradually, a crust would form - and then he would work on the painting again for twenty minutes and finish it, and it would be a masterpiece."
In 1946, Riopelle participates in the first exhibition by Les Automatistes with Marcel Barbeau, Paul-Émile Borduas, Henri Fauteux, Pierre Gauvreau, Fernand Leduc and Jean-Paul Mousseau.
That same year, Riopelle undertakes his first voyage of discovery to France, followed by a trip to New York where he frequents the studio of engraver William Hayter. Riopelle eventually begins some engraving work. Despite his frequent travels, he produces an impressive number of artworks that year - more than a hundred pen and ink drawings and watercolours.
During his brief visit to Montréal in 1946 he marries Françoise Lespérance, with whom he returns to Paris to live.
Beginnings in Paris
In 1947, Riopelle's work is presented as part of an exhibition by Les Automatistes at Galerie du Luxembourg, organized in collaboration with the poet Gérard Jarlot as well as Fernand Leduc. He also meets renowned art dealer Pierre Loeb, who will, a few years later, propel Riopelle's career. He becomes friends with art critic Georges Duthuit and meets Nina Dausset, who runs the Galerie La Dragonne, the meeting place of the Surrealists.
In June 1947, he signs the text Rupture inaugurale out of solidarity with André Breton and the Surrealists.
In 1948, upon the birth of his eldest daughter Yseult, Riopelle spends the year in Montréal and Saint-Hilaire. On August 9, the Refus global manifesto is published, with Riopelle as one of the signees alongside other illustrious artists such as Paul-Émile Borduas, Fernand Leduc, Muriel Guilbault, Madeleine Arbour, Marcel Barbeau, Thérèse Renaud, Louise Renaud, Marcelle Ferron, Bruno Cormier, Françoise Sullivan, Jean-Paul Mousseau, Maurice Perron, Pierre Gauvreau, Claude Gauvreau as well as Françoise Riopelle. This important work challenged the traditional and religious values of Québec society and would influence the history of Québec for decades to come.
In December, Riopelle and his family return to Paris. From that moment, he participates regularly in various art fairs, particularly the Salon de mai.
Riopelle's first solo exhibition opens in 1949 at Galerie La Dragonne in Paris.
Sylvie, Riopelle's youngest daughter, is born in June 1949.
The Decade of the Great Mosaics
The buzzing Parisian life is echoed in the creative effervescence of the young painter. During this period, his style develops enormously. Riopelle experiments, one after the other, with various techniques and media: painting with a brush, sculptural impasto, sprayed lines of paint, and paint applied with palette knives. He exhibits his artwork at Galerie Raymond Creuze in Paris.
In 1951, Riopelle participates in the Véhémences confrontées exhibition presented by Michel Tapié at Galerie La Dragonne with, among others, Camille Bryen, Hans Hartung, Georges Mathieu and Jackson Pollock. Michel Tapié also organizes an exhibition at Studio Paul Facchetti.
In 1952, Riopelle begins to work in a studio on Durantin Street in Montmartre, loaned to him by Henri Fara. "It is the first time I had my own studio." At the end of the year, his mosaic style, using sparsely distributed small touches, is refined. That same year, Riopelle exhibits at Galerie Henriette Niepce in Paris.
The Riopelle family travels widely. The artist will even say that "Travelling is somewhat part of a dream. Perhaps we travel to find titles for paintings already done. Otherwise, we have to bother our friends. All the same, the shock of Prado, Toledo, the Cordoba Mosque. There, something happens."
In 1953, he is so taken by the mosaics that he produces over sixty artworks. The winds of change have begun to blow for the artist, who first joins Galerie Pierre Loeb in Paris, then the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. His participation in the Younger European Painters at the Guggenheim Museum in New York is remarked upon by the critics.
It is also the year when Riopelle and his friend and garage owner Philippot begin to reconstruct his first vintage cars bought from a scrap dealer. Over time, this would become a passion for the artist. Riopelle and his friends, Alex Costa, Daniel Andrisse and Paolo Valors, will eventually build, around 1960, a race car and join the 24-hour race at Le Mans.
From 1954, Riopelle exhibits regularly in the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. He represents Canada at the Venice Biennale, with Paul-Émile Borduas and B.C. Binning. His friend Alberto Giacometti was also at the Biennale that year.
In 1955, Riopelle moves into his studio in Vanves. He participates in the Sao Paulo Biennale, travels to the United States and befriends Franz Kline, whose work he admires. He meets Joan Mitchell, a young American painter who will later become his companion.
In 1956, Gimpel Gallery in London and Galerie Jacques Dubourg in Paris host solo exhibitions for Riopelle.
At the end of the fifties, the artist returns to modelling sculptures. "In fact, I've always made sculptures. But because I did not have the money to cast them in bronze, they were either lost or broken." He meets Jacques Delahaye, whom he describes as a "great sculptor", and soon takes over his foundry with sculptor Roseline Granet.
References to nature in his work become more explicit. "Since there is no longer any common symbolic language accepted by all, another relationship is needed. For me, that relationship is my contact with nature. Now, contact with nature means documenting nature. There are a thousand ways to create a work of art, but for me, the simplest is drawing, and learning about stones if I want to draw stones, or about heads if I want to draw heads..."
In 1960, Jean Paul Riopelle presents solo exhibitions in Paris at Galerie Kléber (now Galerie Jean Fournier) and at Galerie Jacques Dubourg. He travels to East Hampton in the United States, where he spends over a year. He rents a studio, where he works on, among others, a sculpture comprised of chess pieces. Always looking to innovate, Riopelle experiments with a wide variety of techniques and matter.
In 1961, the Toronto International Airport commissioned a work from Riopelle: the largest oil on canvas he has ever produced (4.26 m X 5.49 m), Point de rencontre, which he created in just one night in 1963 and unveiled in 1964. Also in 1963, the National Gallery of Canada devoted a retrospective exhibition to Riopelle, which was later presented at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts as well as at the Art Gallery of Toronto - the ancestor of the Art Gallery of Ontario.
In 1962, the painter and pastellist Sam Szafran chisels Riopelle's bronzes that are exhibited for the first time at Galerie Jacques Dubourg, then at Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. Szafran introduces Riopelle to pastels and will later assist him in the creation of his collage works in 1967.
In 1962, Riopelle is awarded one of three Unesco prizes at the Venice Biennale.
In 1963, the National Gallery of Canada organizes a retrospective of his work, which travels to the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts and the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario). The Toronto International Airport commissions a painting, Point de rencontre, which Riopelle paints over the course of one night - the largest oil on canvas he will ever make (4.26 x 5.49 meters).
1964 -1965 marks a return to representation. Riopelle draws sketches of the Pyrénées and a view from his hotel room in Superbagnières, in the south west of France. He creates a series of studies for the tapestry project Les oiseaux, which is produced at the Manufacture nationale des Gobelins and completed in 1968.
Beginning in 1966, Riopelle exhibits regularly at Galerie Maeght in Paris. He rediscovers engraving.
In 1967, Riopelle produces a large series of collages, created with his lithographic essays. That same year, the Musée du Québec (now Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec), whose director at the time was Guy Viau, presents a retrospective of Riopelle's work - the first major exhibition of his work in the province of Québec.
In 1968, Riopelle's work is included in the Canadian art exhibition at Galeries nationales du Grand Palais de Paris. He also begins modelling sculptures, many of which will have an animal motif and some of which will later become elements of the fountain-sculpture La Joute.
In 1969, Riopelle rents a hangar in Saint-Cyr-en-Arthies, North West of Paris, where he will establish his studio.
Between France and Canada
In 1970, a plaster cast of La Joute is exhibited for the first time at Fondation Maeght. The piece contains various elements which synthesize a large number of past and future themes: animal motifs, string games, masks, etc.
Riopelle's stays in Canada, motivated by hunting and fishing, become longer and more frequent.
In 1971, Riopelle begins the Jeux de ficelles series - acrylic paintings based on Inuit string games - in his Val Fleury studio in Meudon. The Musée d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris presents a solo exhibition where La Joute, large collages, and Les Suites lithographs are exhibited, among others. At the same time, the Centre culturel canadien in Paris features a number of Jeux de ficelles.
In 1973, a journey to the Arctic inspires him to create a series of works on paper entitled Les Rois de Thulé.
The following year, Riopelle builds a studio in Sainte-Marguerite-du-Lac-Masson, in the Laurentian region in the province of Québec. From now on, he will divide his time between Sainte-Marguerite and his other studio in Saint-Cyr-en-Arthies in France. He also works at Imprimerie Arte of Galerie Maeght in Paris.
In 1975, he completes the first production of oil on canvas and colour ink in his new studio-barn in Sainte-Marguerite.
In 1976, he spends time in L'Isle-aux-Oies, where he creates a series of realistic drawings on the theme of goose hunting. That same year the fountain-sculpture La Joute, cast in bronze, is installed at the Olympic Park in Montréal.
In 1977, following another journey in the Arctic, Riopelle commences work on his black and white Icebergs series in Sainte-Marguerite, which he will complete in France in his studio in Saint-Cyr-en-Arthies.
In 1979, in the Fondation Maeght studios in France, he begins working with ceramist Hans Spinner on the 61 elements that will make up the great ceramic wall - porcelaine, earthenware and rope - which he will complete in 1981. Like the fountain-sculpture La Joute, this ensemble of works is a synthesis of the past and future of Riopelle's work.
Work on Paper
In 1981, a retrospective of Riopelle's paintings from 1946 to 1977 is held at the Musée national d'art moderne in Paris, which then travels to the Musée du Québec (now Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec), to the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico and finally to the National Museum of Fine Arts in Caracas.
In this period, Riopelle produces a significant number of works about wild geese, a theme he began exploring in 1976 and which will continue until his final works in 1992.
In 1984 - 1985, Riopelle, who has been experimenting for many years with ceramic technique, creates with Hans Spinner in Opio, France, a series of enamelled lava, which will be exhibited at Château-Musée de Vallauris.
In 1986, his eldest daughter Yseult undertakes the compilation of a comprehensive Catalogue raisonné of his works, which he describes as "unreasonable". The first of nine volumes is published in 1999.
In 1989, after a long stay at a rehabilitation clinic following an accident, Riopelle produces nearly 400 works until his definitive return to the province of Québec at the end of the year. That year, on the occasion of the bicentenary of the French Revolution, the Canadian government presents France with the painting Point de rencontre (1963), which is installed at Opéra de Bastille, in Paris.
From Sainte-Marguerite to L'Isle-aux-Grues
In 1990, back in the province of Québec, Riopelle paints a gigantic mural, originally entitled Le Haut et le Bas Canada, and then renamed Hommage à Scottie Wilson. That same year, in France, Jean-Louis Prat, director and curator of Fondation Maeght, presents the exhibition Riopelle, d'hier et d'aujourd'hui.
In December 1991, the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts presents a major retrospective exhibition - Riopelle - on the occasion of the inauguration of the new Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion.
In the fall of 1992, upon learning of the death of Joan Mitchell, his companion for more than twenty-five years, Riopelle creates the monumental fresco dedicated to her memory, L'Hommage à Rosa Luxemburg. "There is no more Rosa Sorrow. Nor even Rosa Happiness. All the Rosas are dead..."
From 1994, Jean Paul Riopelle divides his time between Sainte-Marguerite-du-Lac-Masson and L'Isle-aux-Grues, where he purchases a new estate, MacPherson Manor, located on the tip of the island. "It's like being on a ship. I can withstand long sieges, spend the winter there if necessary. An island is a ship without a sail."
In 1995, L'Hommage à Rosa Luxemburg is unveiled at Château de La Roche-Guyon near Paris, before being presented in 1996, at the Musée du Québec (now Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec), where it remains exhibited permanently in the vast passage between the main pavilion and the Pierre Lassonde Pavilion.
Jean Paul Riopelle dies on March 12, 2002, at his residence in L'Isle-aux-Grues. A state funeral is held in his honour.
The œuvre of Riopelle transcends all frontiers. Whether in his hometown, Montréal, his forty years in France, his many travels and adventures to the limits of our world, or until his return to Québec, his artistic and cultural footprint spans all corners of the world to the delight of many collectors, museums or through the archives and treasures disseminated during his lifetime.
Riopelle’s artworks belonging to public collections can be found in over 60 cities located in 18 countries and 6 continents. In total, this amounts to no less than 400 artworks in these collections, excluding engravings and sculptures.
The interactive map below includes the main locations – buildings, museums, art galleries, etc. – where public collections feature artworks by Riopelle, whether currently exhibited or in the collection reserves.
“Travelling is somewhat part of a dream. Perhaps we travel to find titles for paintings already done. Otherwise, we have to bother our friends. All the same, the shock of Prado, Toledo, the Cordoba Mosque. There, something happens.”
– Jean Paul Riopelle, 1952, during a trip in Spain on a motorcycle and by train.
2010 – 2021
Gagnon, François-Marc. Jean Paul Riopelle and the Automatiste Mouvement. Montréal and Kingston (Ontario), McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020. Available now!
Des Rochers, Jacques, Yseult Riopelle and Andréanne Roy. Riopelle: The Call of Northern Landscapes and Indigenous Cultures. Montréal and Milan, Publishing Department of the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, in collaboration with 5 Continents Éditions. 2020. Available now!
Riopelle, Yseult and Tanguy Riopelle. Catalogue raisonné de Jean Paul Riopelle, volume 5, 1972 – 1979, Montréal, Hibou éditeurs, 2020. Available now!
Baxter, Bonnie. « Riopelle and Me : Impression passagère », dans Transatlantic Passages. Literary and Cultural Relations between Quebec and Francophone Europe, Paola Gilbert et Miléna Santoro (dir.), Montréal et Kingston (Ontario), McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010, p. 227-258.
Corbeil, Marie-Claude, Kate Helwig et Jennifer Poulin. Jean Paul Riopelle. The Artist’s Materials, Los Angeles, Getty Publications, 2011.
Ellenwood, Ray. « Riopelle and Indigenous Art ». Exile, vol. 42, no 3, 2019, p. 105-113.
Gagnon, François-Marc. Jean Paul Riopelle, Life and Work, Toronto, Art Canada Institute, 2019.
Gagnon, François-Marc. « Riopelle, l’ekphrasis et l’invisibilité ». Études françaises, vol. 51, no 2, 2015, p. 69-86.
Lapointe, Gilles. « Mitchell et Riopelle : affinités et confrontations ». Compte rendu, Spirale, no 263, hiver 2018, p. 50-55.
Lequeux, Emmanuelle. « Joan Mitchell Jean-Paul Riopelle. Les amants terribles de l’abstraction », Beaux-arts magazine, no 403, janvier 2018, p. 67-73.
Musée des beaux-arts du Québec. Mitchell / Riopelle: Nothing in Moderation, Québec, 2018.
Riopelle, Yseult et Tanguy Riopelle. Catalogue raisonné de Jean-Paul Riopelle, volume 4, 1961-1971. Texte de François-Marc Gagnon, Montréal, Hibou éditeurs, 2014.
Vachon, Huguette. Jean-Paul, fenêtres intimes. Montréal, Leméac, 2020.
Vigneault, Louise. Espace artistique et modèle pionnier. Tom Thompson et Jean Paul Riopelle. Montréal, Hurtubise, 2011.