Born in 1923 in Montreal, Jean-Paul Riopelle was one of the major figures in post-war abstract art, and certainly the most important Canadian painter of the twentieth century. He was associated for a time with the Surrealist and Automatist movement. In Paris, where he settled in 1947, he discovered new affinities with the pioneers of lyrical abstraction. Renowned for his mental landscapes, Riopelle expressed himself by means of various media such as painting, sculpture and lithography.
At the dawn of the 1950s, Riopelle’s technique took a decisive turn when he definitively adopted the palette knife and renounced the brush, drawing, figuration, or any form of academicism. This gesture of emancipation had a major impact on his work and marked the beginning of the so-called “mosaic” period and international recognition, which began with his first exhibition at Pierre Loeb’s gallery in May 1953.
By applying pure paint using a spatula, directly out of the tube, Riopelle developed a very particular way of sculpting matter. During the 1950s, to better use a rich, powerfully chromatic material, the artist employed a technique made of juxtapositions and scrapings of paint along the canvas. This evolving use of the spatula translated into different ways of moving the tool, of leaving a trace in the matter, reflecting Riopelle’s tireless spirit of creative exploration.
Based on the observation of nature and landscapes, without ever trying to imitate them, Riopelle’s compositions have a strong immersive dimension. The artist created a world that was eminently personal to him, an evocative spatiality which the viewer is invited to enter in in light of his own sensitivity. When Life magazine called Riopelle “Monet’s heir” in 1957, it was undoubtedly to highlight his filiation with the master of Giverny, whom he admired, and their common way of painting landscapes at the crossroads between figuration and abstraction, sensitive spaces reflecting the interiority of being.
Contributing personally and decisively to the revival of abstraction in the post-war period, Riopelle was a bridge between Paris and New York, the new capital of modern art, fostered by his proximity to American artists such as Sam Francis and Joan Mitchell, who was his companion for fifteen years. This explains the presence of his works in the best contemporary art collections in the world: those of the Centre national d’art et de culture Georges-Pompidou, in Paris, the Guggenheim Museum or the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, the Tate Modern in London and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montreal.