Jean Paul Riopelle

Born in Montreal, October 7, 1923
 / Died in Quebec City, March 12, 2002

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About the Artist

Jean Paul Riopelle

“…nature is still a mystery: you never see it whole. It’s like me, always slipping away.”
Jean Paul Riopelle 1993

Jean Paul Riopelle began his career at the école polytechnique in 1941, pursuing engineering with some architecture and photography. His childhood enthusiasm for making art became a hobby at this time, and he described himself as a Sunday painter with a constrained, academic style. In 1942 he enrolled at the école des Beaux-Arts in Montreal but shifted his studies to the much less academic approach at the école du Meuble, graduating in 1945. There he studied with Paul-émile Borduas, a teacher who was extremely dedicated to his students and gave them a great deal of freedom. It was under Borduas’s direction that Riopelle made his first abstract painting. Borduas and several of his students, including Riopelle, formed a group that worked, socialized and exhibited together (1942-45). The group became known as the Automatistes for their spontaneous method of painting, which drew on the subconscious as a source. In 1946 Riopelle first travelled to France, where he would return and settle the following year. In 1948 Borduas authored the manifesto Refus global, which was signed by a number of his students, including Riopelle.

Riopelle had his first solo exhibition at the Surrealist meeting place, Galerie La Dragonne in Paris, in 1949. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, he met and became friends with artists, writers and gallery owners including Georges Mathieu and Pierre Loeb, who introduced him to André Breton. He also met Jean Arp and Antonin Artaud at Loeb’s gallery.

Riopelle pioneered a style of painting where large quantities of varied coloured paints were thickly applied to the canvas with a trowel for such works as Pavane (1954) and The Wheel II (1956). The coming years brought Riopelle increasing success and immersion in the Parisian cultural scene. He was represented in New York and participated in the biennials of contemporary art in Venice (1954) and Sao Paulo (1955). He spent his evenings in Paris bistros with friends including playwright Samuel Beckett and artist Alberto Giacometti.

In the 1960s, Riopelle renewed his ties to Canada. Exhibitions were held at the National Gallery of Canada (1963), and the Musée du Quebec held a retrospective in 1967. In the early 1970s, he built a home and studio in the Laurentians. From 1974 he divided his time between St. Marguerite in Quebec, and Saint-Cyr-en-Arthies in France. Riopelle participated in his last exhibition in 1996. From 1994 until his death, he maintained homes in both St. Marguerite and Isle-aux-Grues, Quebec.

Courtesy the National Gallery of Canada


b. 1923

Born in Montreal, Quebec, the only son of an architectural designer. His father arranged for his studies under Montreal artist Henri Bisson who taught him traditional painting. He studied Saturdays with Bisson from the age of six to sixteen, working to the background radio music of the New York Metropolitan Opera. He painted landscapes, still life and figure or people subjects. Later he destroyed most of his traditional work when he became deeply interested in abstract expressionism. Summers he painted subjects in the Gaspé region as in the summer of 1938 when he did overhead views of sea shells, sand and glistening water. As he stood back to look at his work he realized his results resembled nothing identifiable although he had faithfully rendered what he had seen. This was his first encounter with abstraction. By 1940, at 17 years of age, he was painting abstracts along with his other work. As a youth his early ambitions were to be a professional hockey player (even today he suffers from an old hockey injury to his knee), later a mechanic for which he had considerable aptitude, and finally a painter. But his father had hopes of his son becoming an engineer as Jean-Paul was also good at math. After he had attended high school, he went on to the Polytechnique as a preliminary for studies as an engineer. But he realized he wanted to be a painter more than anything else so he entered the École des Beaux-Arts full time and there studied from 1942 to 1945. It was during his art studies that he became interested in the work of Van Gogh whose paintings had a direct effect on his own. He admired as well the work of Renoir and Tintoretto. For further studies he attended L’Ecole du Meuble (1943-1944) where he came under the influence of Paul Emile Borduas. Borduas, who was inspired by the French poet and surrealist André Breton, was exploring free thought and spontaneous art, turning himself away from the traditional standards imposed on society by preceding generations of religious, political, and artistic leaders and their institutions. Borduas worked closely with his students and they formed a group around him. This group included Marcel Barbeau, Roger Fauteux, Fernand Leduc, Jean-Paul Mousseau, Claude Gauvreau, Muriel Guilbault, Riopelle and others. By then Riopelle was sharing a workshop on University Avenue with Marcel Barbeau and surrealist poet Remi-Paul Forgues. There Barbeau and Riopelle explored automatic writing, drawing and painting. Then a young poet, Claude Gauvreau (who was the first person to purchase a Riopelle painting), separated and arranged their work chronologically. Riopelle visited Paris during this period on a Canadian Government Fellowship and on his return home he participated in the first group show of Borduas followers. They became known as the Automatistes in the next exhibition in 1947. Riopelle was working in water colours and ink (often together), oils then gouache, lithographs, collages, pastels and by 1947, clay sculpture. In 1946 he had taken part in the International Exhibition of Surrealists in New York City where he and his fellow Montreal artists had viewed American action painting in galleries. The action painting caused great discussion between them and had an influence on their work. Riopelle made several trips to Paris where he decided to live and work. He married Françoise l’Esperance in 1948 in Montreal and they returned to Paris. This same year he was a signatory to Borduas’ Refus Global. It took a year or two before things started to happen for Riopelle. Then a sculptress he knew was having a solo show and she asked him if he would like to enhance the bare walls with his paintings. He agreed and on the opening day a dealer who visited the show bought all of Riopelle’s paintings and offered him a studio in which to work. As each exhibition followed, Riopelle moved to prominence and, as the years passed, he went from one technique to another. Some of his most stunning paintings however were done around the mid fifties. Lawrence Sabbath viewing Riopelle’s retrospective at Musée d’art contemporain noted this period as follows, These luxuriant, sensuous oils that place the viewer within Robert Frosts’s lines – ‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep’ represent a towering achievement. A more compellingly heart-stopping sight would be difficult to come upon. The only comparable museum experience that comes quickly to mind is the large main room of the Courtauld’s in London, where more world-famous masterpieces of every period are assembled than in any comparable size museum room in the world. In 1963 J. Russell Harper described his work as follows, In 1947-48 the artist was at least superficially a tachist. His wild and sweeping brushstrokes of green, ochre, orange, and white ‘lashed’ the canvas with almost superhuman energy. While abandoning himself apparently to the tachist’s non-representational approach and seeking to make an impact only through accidental effects, his canvases actually related back to the Canadian woods. They bear such titles as Hochelaga and Boisé, and from them emerge forests in autumn colours, leaping waterfalls, and other Quebec experiences. The second phase might be called a ‘controlled drip’ period. The artist no longer attacks his canvas with his brush, but applies the paint directly from the tube in a more controlled poetry He squeezes a blob on the canvas, then trails the thread away in a number of directions. This style reached its peak in 1950-51. The works best known to most Canadians began to emerge in 1953. These seem to have originated when Riopelle flattened out with his palette knife some of the rebellious blobs of paint squeezed from the tube. His use of the knife increased steadily. Soon the whole surface became a modelled mosaic of flat colour areas, skillfully laced together to give an exhilarating sensation both of romantic colour harmonies and light vibration. Great variety came through juxtaposition of pure colours. Later Riopelle introduced zig-zag lines of various colours in combination with the palette knife. From there he moved into solid forms, surrounded and set off by larger areas of white. Solid forms were created in his bronze sculptures too. His output up to the mid sixties was about 200 canvases a year which he had produced each year for twenty years. He received many important commissions, awards and honours over the years. The brisk sales of his work on the world markets made him well-off financially. For years he has been free to follow his passions of sportscar collecting, sailing his fifty foot sailboat in the Mediterranean; sharing the ownership of a sea­plane with friends in Quebec; owning a restaurant in Ste. Marguerite and having properties in France, Canada and United States. From his former marriage he has two daughters, Yseult and Sylvie, whose children now break the silence of his Paris home and studio. Riopelle is one of the few internationally well-known Canadian artists and the only one mentioned in Peter and Linda Murray’s Dictionary of Art and Artists. His awards include: Order of Canada (1969); Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree, Univ. Manitoba (1972); Honorary Doctorate (honoris causa), Univ. of Sherbrooke, Que. (1977); recipient of Paul-Emile Borduas Prize awarded by the Province of Quebec (1981); Diploma of Honour, Can. Conference of the Arts, Ottawa (1984). Guy Viau in his book Modern Painting in French Canada concluded his section on Riopelle in these words. Does Riopelle belong to Canada? The meeting with Borduas certainly gave the first impetus of his meteoric career. But it was by his own powers that the penniless art student who arrived in Paris in 1946 carved himself a place among the most notable painters in the world today. Riopelle remains Canadian without any conscious wish to be, and without any kind of attempt by Canadians to appropriate him to themselves. He remains Canadian by the phenomenon of mimesis which allows him to preserve a prodigious ‘memory’ of the nature of his native land. . . . He has held over 90 solo shows including: Galerie Nina Dausset, Paris, France (1949); Galerie Creuze, Paris (1950); Galerie Springer, Berlin (1951); Studio Paul Facchetti, Paris (1951) (1952); Galerie Pierre Loeb, Paris (1953); Galerie Rive Droite, Paris (1954); Pierre Matisse, NYC (1954) (1955) (1963) (1965) (1969) (1974) (1975) (1977) (1985); Galerie Jacques Dubourg, Paris (1956) (1960) (1962); Arthur Tooth & Sons (1959) (1963); Kunst and Museumsverein, Wuppertal, Ger. (1958); Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hanover, Ger. (1958); Kunstverein, Cologne, Ger. (1958), Roberts Gallery, Tor. (1961) (1963); Galerie Dr. Benador, Geneva, Switz. (1961); Canadian Pavilion, Venice Biennial (1962); National Gallery of Canada (touring, 1963); Galerie Camille Hébert, Mtl. (1963); Galerie d’Art Moderne, Basel, Switz. (1963); Vancouver Art Gallery, Van., B.C. (1965); Dominion Gallery, Mtl. (1975); Laing Galleries, Tor. (1966); Galerie Maeght, Paris (1966) (1968) (1970) (1974) (1979); Galerie Maeght, Zurich (1972); Musée du Québec, Qué. (1967) (1981); Univ. Guelph, Ont. (1968); Gallery Moos Ltd., Tor. (1968) (1971) (1973) (1975) (1980); Albert White Gallery, Tor. (1968) (1972) (1975); Centre Culturel Canadien, Paris (1972) (1976); Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris (1972); Galerie Gilles Corbeil, Mtl. (1974) (1976); Nickel Arts Museum, Univ. Calgary, Alta. (1980); Concordia University, Mtl. (1981); Theo Waddington, Mtl. (1981); Wayne Art Gallery, Windsor, Ont. (1981); Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1981); Musée d’art contemporain, Mtl. (1982); Galerie Maeght Lelong, Paris (1983); Galerie Rodrigue LeMay, Ott. (1985). He has participated in many important group shows including: Automatists, Mtl. (1947); Venice Biennial (1954); Sao Paulo Biennial (1951 Hon. Ment.) (1955); 2nd Biennial, Canadian Art .(1957); 3rd Biennial, Canadian Art (1959); Guggenheim International Awards (1955) (Hon. Ment. 1958); Ecole de Paris, Galerie Charpentier, Paris (1956) (1957) (1958); 4th Biennial, Canadian Art (1961); 5th Biennial Canadian Painting (1963); 6th Biennial, Canadian Painting (1965); Internationale Sezession, Leverkusen, The Netherlands (1956); Nouvelle Ecole de Paris, Bonn, Ger. (1957); The Exploration of paint, Arthur Tooth & Sons, Lond. (1957); Cinquante ans de peinture, Exposition Internationale de Bruxelles, Belgium (1958); International Exhibition Carnegie Inst., Pittsburgh, Pa. (1958); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Minn. (1959); Jeunes peintres d’aujourd’hui, Kinster Hall, Vienna, Austria (1959); Documenta, Kassel Ger. (1959); Artistes français contemporains, Goteburg, Sweden (1960); Salon de Mai, Paris (1960); Ecole de Paris, Tokyo and Kyoto (1960); International Arts Festival, Pittsburgh, Pa. (1961); Kolnischer Kunsverein, Cologne (1962) 10 Peintres du Québec, Musée d’art contemporain, Cité du Havre, France (1968); Eight Artists from Canada, Tel-Aviv Museum (1970) Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Holland (1978); Meuerwerbungen, Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Ger. (1979); A Selection of Canadian Painting, The Art Gallery at Harbourfront, Tor. (1980); Paris 1937-1957, créations en France (1981) and others. He is represented in many private and public collections including: Mme. Helena Rubinstein, Paris; Nelson Rockefeller Jr., NYC; Walter Chrysler Jr., NYC; Firestone Art Collection, Ottawa; Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, Ont.; London Public Library & Art Museum, Lond., Ont.; McMaster University, Hamilton, Ont.; Art Gallery of Ontario, Tor.; Toronto Dominion Bank, Head Office Collection, Tor.; The Bank of Nova Scotia Fine Art Collection, Van.; Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, Ont.; National Gallery of Canada, Ott.; The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Mtl.; Concordia University, Mtl.; Musée du Québec, Que. City; Museum of Modern Art, NYC; Tate Gallery, Lond. Eng.; City of York Art Gallery, Eng.; Paris Museum of Modern Art, Paris, France; Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, Ger.; Kunsthalle, Basel, Switz. and elsewhere. He lives in Paris but has living quarters in United States, Canada and elsewhere.

Colin S. MacDonald

A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, volumes 1-8 by Colin S. MacDonald, and volume 9 (online only), by Anne Newlands and Judith Parker
National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Studied at

In Saturday lessons arranged by his father, studied traditional painting from age six to sixteen under Henri Bisson in Montreal.  Later was a full time student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Montreal from 1942 to 1945, and had further studies under Paul-Emile Borduas at L’Ecole du meuble in 1943 and 1944, through whom he became a member of the “Les Automatistes” movement.


1962 UNESCO prize
1969 Order of Canada
1972 Honourary Doctorate from University of Manitoba
1977 Honourary Doctorate from University of Sherbrooke, PQ
1981 Paul-Emile Borduas Prize
1984 Diploma of Honour, Canadian Conference of the Arts, Ottawa

Professional Activities

Destroyed much of his early traditional work when he became interested in abstract expressionism around the age of 17.  Explored automatic writing and painting with artist Marcel Barbeau (who was the first person to purchase a Riopelle painting) in the early 1940s.  Around that time, visited Paris on Canadian Government Fellowship, and when he returned, participated in a group exhibition of work by Borduas’ students.  The group became known as “Les Automatistes” in their next exhibition in 1947.  Soon after moved to Paris to live and work.  In 1948 was a signatory on Borduas’ social and artistic manifesto “Refus Global.”  First success came a couple of years after that when a dealer bought all of the paintings he had volunteered for the walls of another artist’s sculpture exhibition.

Early on, had ambitions of becoming a professional hockey player, as well as a mechanic.  His father had hopes of him becoming a engineer, because of his aptitude for math.  Began training as an engineer but very soon after enrolled in the Ecole des Beax-Arts.  Eventual financial success as an artist allowed him to indulge his passion for sportscar collecting and sailing, as well as partial ownership of a seaplane, a restaurant, and properties in France, Canada and the United States.

Member of

Painting movement “Les Automatistes”
The only Canadian to be included in Peter and Linda Murray’s “Dictionary of Art and Artists”
Informal expatriate artists group “Ecole de Paris”

Solo Exhibitions

Over 90 solo exhibitions including:
1949 Galerie Nina Dausset, Paris 1949
1954 Pierre Matisse, New York
1958 Kunst und Museumsverein, Wuppertal, Germany
1961 Roberts Gallery, Toronto
1961 Galerie Dr. Benador, Geneva, Switzerland
1962 Canadian Pavillion, Venice Biennial
1963 National Gallery of Canada (touring)
1963 Roberts Gallery, Toronto
1972 Musee d’Art Moderne de Paris

Group Exhibitions

  Many important group exhibitions including:
1946 International Exhibition of Surrealists, New  York
1947 Automatistes, Montreal
1954 Venice Biennial
1959 Walker Art Centre, Minneaplois
1960 Ecole de Paris, Tokyo and Kyoto


Many national and international public and private collections including:
Mme. Helena Rubinstien, Paris
Nelson Rockefeller, Jr., New York
Walter Chrysler, Jr., New York
Art Gallery of Toronto
National Gallery of Canada
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Paris Museum of Modern Art
Tate Gallery, London
Guggenheim museum, New York