Jean-Paul Riopelle was a Canadian painter, born on October 7, 1923 in Montreal, Canada. He became the first Canadian painter, since James Wilson Morrice, to attain widespread international recognition. Riopelle started taking drawing lessons with Henri Bisson in 1933 and continued through 1938. He studied engineering, architecture and photography at the École polytechnique in 1941. In 1942 he enrolled at the École des beaux-arts de Montréal but shifted his studies to the less academic École du meuble, graduating in 1945.
The painter Paul-Émile Borduas was teaching at the École du meuble and had Riopelle as a student. Riopelle rebelled against Borduas at first because Borduas didn’t appreciate his ability to make “realistic” paintings in the manner he had learned from Bisson. He has remarked that he was the “provocateur” in Borduas’s classes, but he slowly opened himself to a freer, more spontaneous style of painting. Riopelle began experimenting with Marcel Barbeau, Jean-Paul Mousseau and Bernard Morisset in a makeshift studio and produced what could be described as his first Automatist paintings. Painted with commercial house paint on jute for lack of money for better materials, little of this work has survived. By 1947, Riopelle had produced a sufficient number of works that qualify as Automatist, that his style could be fully appreciated. The painting he exhibited at Véhémences confrontées in 1950, a show organized by the art critic Michel Tapié and the painter Georges Matthieu at the Galerie Nina Dausset in Paris, was inspired by a Jackson Pollock painting Tapié described as “amorphique,” meaning formless or purely material. The description fit Riopelle’s painting better than Pollock’s. In a text accompanying the exhibition, Riopelle claimed that only “total chance” could open his painting to new discoveries. He then expressed the desire to detach himself from the Automatists, though his paintings and technique remained faithful to the idea of complete spontaneity. In the 1950s, Riopelle developed his well-known, mature style of creating large, colour mosaic paintings executed with a palette knife and by squeezing colors onto the canvas directly from the tube. One such painting, Blue Night (1953), was included in Younger European Painters, an exhibition organized in 1953 by James Johnson Sweeney at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Shortly thereafter, Riopelle signed on with the Pierre Matisse Gallery, owned by the son of the great French artist Henri Matisse, which was devoted to French avant-garde artists in New York. Important New York art critics like Frank O’Hara, a poet and renowned curator at the Museum of Modern Art, recognized Riopelle’s importance and compared him to Jackson Pollock. In Paris, Riopelle was close to a number of American expatriate painters, among them Sam Francis, who remained a close friend for the rest of his life. It is in this context that he met Joan Mitchell, with whom he had a stormy relationship that lasted 25 years. Both of them resisted the trend prevalent in the French avant-garde of the time to follow Picasso, and instead became interested in Monet’s immense paintings of his floating gardens in Giverny, near Paris. Throughout the 1960s, Mitchell and Riopelle maintained separate homes and studios near Giverny. In 1970, Riopelle exhibited a plaster version of his monumental sculpture, La Joute, at the Galerie Maeght in Paris. The model was cast in bronze in Italy in 1974, and two years later installed at the Olympic Stadium in Montréal. It was subsequently installed at the Place Riopelle in the heart of Montréal’s commercial district. Over time, Riopelle visited Canada more and more frequently, first to hunt but also to paint. It was only in 1989 that he returned to Quebec definitively. His fascination with animals gave birth to numerous engravings that constitute a highly original bestiary, as well as many depictions of Canadian geese. He had a studio at Sainte-Marguerite-du-Lac-Masson (from 1974), at l’Estérel (from 1990), and finally at l’Isle-aux-Oies (1994–2002). During his final period, Riopelle had ceased using palette knives but used spray cans instead, often spraying over objects set on the canvas. The public had difficulty understanding his late style, but when he painted his huge Hommage à Rosa Luxemburg shortly after hearing about the death of Joan Mitchell in 1992, it was impossible to deny that Riopelle had mastered a new technique inspired by urban graffiti. The Hommage might be described as a coded message about his life with Mitchell.
When Riopelle died 12 March 2002 at Isle-aux-Grues, a state funeral was organized in his honour. It can be said without exaggeration that he was the best internationally known Canadian painter of his era, his work represented in all the great museums of the world.