Considered as one of the greatest French Canadian contemporary artists, Jean-Paul Riopelle died at 77 at his l'Ile-aux-Grues residence (Saint-Laurent) on March 12th 2002 after tackling his favourite themes of wild geese during the last 15 years of his career.
Born in Montreal, Riopelle came from a family of Spanish origins which went to Canada during the 19th Century. He first studied to become an engineer before becoming a decorator while starting to paint some classical landscapes from 1938.
At the start of the 1940s, he met André Breton who was then visiting Canada and underwent the influence of Father Couturier who induced him to come to New York where the latter had invited some modern European painters, such as Fernand Léger.
Riopelle studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts of Montreal from 1943 but feeling not at ease with academic teaching preferred to frequent the School of Furniture.
After fighting as a pilot during World War Two, he resumed painting and belonged to the « Automatist » Group in Canada between 1946 and 1950.
In 1946, Riopelle notably fréquented the Studio 17 headed by Stanley Hayter in New York and then met Miro, de Kooninck, Pollock and Franz Kline whom he befriended. The following year, he settled in Paris and worked for the dealer Pierre Loeb. He also befriended Vieira da Silva, Mathieu, Zao Wou Ki, Sam Francis, Bram van Velde and Serge Charchoune and exhibited for the first time in Canada with the “Automatist” Group before taking part in numerous exhibitions at home and abroad.
His first one-man show took place in 1949 in Paris and was followed by many others, notably retrospectives at the Musée du Québec (1967) at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la ville de Paris (1972), at the Musée National d'Art Moderne de Paris in 1981, at the Maeght Foundation, at the Artcurial gallery (1990) as well as the l'Espace Paul Rebeyrolle in Eymoutiers in 1997.
As soon as 1942, Riopelle felt the urge to paint what his feelings where dictating him before undergoing in 1945 the influence of Borduas, who had been his teacher at the School of Furniture in Montreal. Through Borduas, he also underwent the influence of Surréalism and like Jackson Pollock adopted the principle of automatic scripture thus participating in the devlopment of lyrical abstraction.
His first abstract works painted in 1946 were made of violent splashes of colours directly from paint tubes but the public did not understand them much. In 1948, he signed the “Global refusal” manifesto launched by the group headed by Borduas, which was also lashing at the condition of French-speaking Canadians.
Praised at that time by Breton, he however did not accept the harsh discipline imposed by the latter within the Surrealist group, which he left in 1950. From then on, he developed his own lyrical-abstract style.
His most impressive works were «15 chevaux, Citroën» in 1952 and «Crepuscular», both produced while he was facing financial difficulties.
After 1952, Riopelle started to use palette-knives to apply his colours on the canvas and developed a new style, splashes being replaced by frank trails as in
« The man with nympheas by Monet », which represented one of his best works of his career.
Riopelle then painted great monochrome or polychrome symphonies in a rather violent and eruptive manner marked by the influence of Impressionism as exhaled by Monet at the end of his life.
From 1956, Riopelle found a new formulation by organising the space on the canvas often with large white margins before breaking the structure with mosaic forms by introducing spiralling blue or black lines. He then recreated forms, which were more figurative and experimented other techniques such as engraving and sculpture.
The frequentation of the Northern part of Canada marked his works between 1970 and 1975 before he found some inspiration in representing the owl or icebergs. He then tackled the theme of geese in 1983 superposing colours and forms and multiplied in his works splashing effects punctuated by forms derived from his usual bestiary.
During the early 1970s Riopelle travelled extensively between France and Canada and enabled in 1980 the setting up of a Foundation bearing his name destined to promote artists.