Artwork by Jean Paul Riopelle,  Petite Californie, 1962

Jean P. Riopelle
Petite Californie, 1962

oil on canvas
signed lower right
23.75 x 23.75 ins ( 60.3 x 60.3 cms )

Auction Estimate: $80,000.00$60,000.00 - $80,000.00

Price Realized $70,000.00
Sale date: June 1st 2016

Galerie Claude Lafitte, Montreal
Theo Waddington Inc., Montreal
Private Collection, Toronto
Guy Cogeval and Stéphane Aquin, “Riopelle”, Montreal, 2006, pages 9-41 and 80-86
Roald Nasgaard, “Abstract Painting in Canada”, Toronto/Vancouver, 2007, pages 78-83
Roald Nasgaard and Ray Ellenwood, “Automatiste Revolution: Montreal, 1941-1960”, Toronto, 2009
Yseult Riopelle, “Jean Paul Riopelle: Catalogue raisonné, volume 3, 1960-1965”, Montreal, 2009, reproduced page 142, catalogue #1962.001H.1962
The artist began his career as a student at the École Polytechnique in 1941, studying engineering, architecture and photography, while painting as a hobby. Later enrolling with the École des Beaux-Arts in Montreal, Riopelle shifted away from his formal, academic painting studies and transferred to the École du Meuble, studying under Paul-Émile Borduas. Given the artistic freedom to experiment with abstraction, Riopelle's technique and style matured throughout these studies. From his tutelage, the artist, among other students, with Borduas formed the group known as the Automatistes, socializing and exhibiting their abstract works which drew on the subconscious as a key source of inspiration. Riopelle later began sharing a studio with Marcel Barbeau, a fellow member, where the pair freely experimented with Automatiste methods of abstraction and formed their respective styles. Coupled with the socio-political landscape of the post-war era in Canada with intense sentiments of a fractured national identity, particularly with respects to French and English Canada, this environment influenced the group's works, responding to this uncertainty and general anarchism.

“Petite Californie” gives nod to the marvelous mosaic style for which the artist is best-known, with green, white and blue sprays of painted forms in the upper right quadrant of the painting. Exploring the limitations of the medium, energetic bursts of paint are applied thickly with a palette knife, giving texture and definition to the canvas. The green cluster of forms created by the artist’s quick movements of the knife are balanced by the contrasting red borders in the lower left corner, and a more neutral dark grey background applied with a decidedly smoother pace. Rather than rely on line to delineate form, Riopelle works through the physicality of the paint to build and define form through strategic application technique.

Balance was key for Riopelle's work throughout the sixties; while experimenting with abstraction and the physicality of the medium, he maintained compositional harmony, harnessing the energy created in the application of paint. The viewer is constantly oscillating between macro and micro inspection of the work, negotiating between the large-scale patterning of the forms and finite details of striated colour in the individual sweeps of the palette knife. In this respect, the artist breaks from the rigid modernist grid and flat all-over abstraction in vogue throughout the 1960s and defines an artistic oeuvre all his own.

Riopelle's evenly weighted composition is not completely abstract in a formal sense, nor can it fit squarely into the definition of figurative painting. His practice rests in a distinct autonomist middle ground. Taking the lead from impressionism with the importance of colour and light, the artist incorporates expressive application of paint to evoke energy from the canvas in a more abstract form.

Riopelle’s works are both expressive and formal, responding to the art historical and socio-political environment of the post-war era, unique from his abstract-expressionist peers. Jeffery Spalding writes on the artist's work: “Each and every painting was an individual creation, not merely a member of a set or series. Yet, simultaneously each painting remained unquestionably identifiable as signature-brand Riopelle.”

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Jean Paul Riopelle
(1923 - 2002) Les Automatistes, RCA, SCA

Born in 1923, Jean Paul Riopelle is one of Canada’s most significant artists from the twentieth century. Born in Montréal, Quebec, Riopelle was educated at the Saint-Louis-de-Gonzague school. In 1936, he began taking painting and drawing classes on the weekends that Henri Bisson, a sculptor who often drew from life, taught in the Riopelle family home. Much of Riopelle’s early works can be traced to his time spent learning under Bisson and are attempts at direct representations from life. For example, Nature bien morte (1942) is a copy of Bisson’s work. Riopelle, advised by his parents, enrolled in the École Polytechnique de Montréal in 1941 to study architecture and engineering. However, he did poorly in his courses and enrolled in the École des beaux-arts and then the École du meuble.

At the École du meuble, Riopelle was taught by Paul-Émile Borduas. Initially, Riopelle could not let go of the academic style taught to him by Bisson in favor of Borduas’ abstract style. Eventually, inspired by automatic writing and painting exercises Riopelle embraced his unconscious imagination and began working in an abstract style. Riopelle was also inspired by the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. In 1944, he produced his first abstracted work in Saint-Fabien. The painting, now lost, was a representation of a water hole left on the shore of the Saint Lawrence River. Riopelle, alongside other young Automatistes, spent part of the winter of 1944-45 with Borduas in Mont-Saint-Hilaire exploring radical ideas about art and politics, which would eventually manifest themselves in the Refus global manifesto.

In early 1946, Riopelle took part in the first Automatistes exhibition, Exposition de peinture, in Montréal. In the same year, Riopelle travelled to France for the first time while working as a horse groomer and became enamored by paintings of horses by Théodore Géricault and by Impressionist works at the Musée de l’Orangerie. Riopelle returned to France in December 1946 and met André Breton who invited Riopelle to participate in a Surrealist exhibition in the following year. Because Breton was somewhat dismissive of the Automatistes, Riopelle was the only Automatistes to participate in the Exposition international du surréalisme in 1947. Inspired by the French Surrealists, upon Riopelle’s return to Canada he encouraged the Automatistes to produce their own manifesto. The manifesto, Refus global, was an anarchistic proclamation published in 1948.

Georges Mathieu invited Riopelle to participate in an international exhibition titled Véhémences confrontées alongside Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Feeling detached from Breton’s Surrealism Riopelle began producing a body of work that would eventually be known as mosaics. Favoring a pallet knife over a brush, Riopelle was renown through the 1950s for his larger than life canvases. In the summer of 1960, Riopelle began sculpting. Riopelle represented Canada at the Venice Biennale in 1962; exhibiting both paintings and bronze cast sculptures earning him the UNESCO Prize. After appearing in the Venice Biennale, throughout the late 1960s, Riopelle began working in a fragmented style that is reminiscent of collages. In 1969, Riopelle began working on La Joute, which would eventually be installed in the Olympic Park at the 1976 Summer Olympic Games in Montréal. The installation features a fountain surrounded by abstract animal and human figures.

Beginning in the 1980s, numerous Canadian institutions began retrospective exhibitions of Riopelle’s work, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, and the Art Gallery of Peterborough. The Musée national d’art modern de Paris organized a retrospective of his work that would travel to Montréal, Mexico City, and Caracas, Venezuela. In 1981, Riopelle was presented the Prix Paul-Émile-Borduas due to his contributions to cultural life.

Literature Source:
Gagnon, François-Marc. Jean Paul Riopelle: Life and Work. Art Canada Institute, 2019

We extend our thanks to Danie Klein, York University graduate student in art history, for writing and contributing this artist biography.