Artwork by Jean Paul Riopelle,  Sans titre (circa 1959)

Jean P. Riopelle
Sans titre (circa 1959)

oil on canvas
inscribed “24” on the reverse; catalogue raisonne #1959.053H.V1959
34 x 39 ins ( 86.4 x 99.1 cms )

Auction Estimate: $500,000.00$300,000.00 - $500,000.00

Price Realized $504,000.00
Sale date: November 22nd 2021

Pierre Matisse Gallery, New York
The Estate of Florence McCormick, New Jersey
Private Collection
Sotheby’s London, auction, October 23, 2001, Lot 480
Mira Godard Gallery, Toronto
Private Collection, Toronto
Yseult Riopelle, “Jean Paul Riopelle: Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 2, 1954-1958”, Montreal, 2004, reproduced page 329, catalogue no. 1959.053H.V1959

Few Canadian artists have received such sustained and high praise as Jean Paul Riopelle did during his prolific career and since his death in 2002. He garnered abundant national and international awards, participated in numerous exhibitions in Europe, the USA, and Canada, and saw his work collected in prominent private and public settings. A pupil of Paul-Émile Borduas in Montreal in the 1940s, he was a signatory to the manifesto “Refus Global” (1948), Canada’s most famous and influential proclamation of artistic and cultural liberty. He was a prominent member of the avant-garde group Les Automatistes before moving to France in 1947. There he became part of the Surrealist circle. André Breton – the leader of the Surrealists – included him in the landmark “6th International Exhibition of Surrealism” at the Galerie Maeght in Paris in 1947. Riopelle was the only Canadian. He participated in the Venice Biennale in 1954 and 1962 and returned to Québec in 1972.

A celebrated artist when he left Canada for Paris in the late 1940s, it was in that city that Riopelle consolidated both his signature style of painting and came to international prominence. By the early 1950s, he had perfected his autograph ‘mosaic’ style, the highly active treatment of the painting surface from which emerges an order that feels both optically prismatic and cosmic. “Sans titre” inherits the extensive variety of forms and colours and the sharp-edged, dramatic handling of pigment from Riopelle’s work of the early 1950s. At that time, the areas of blue, green, red, yellow, and passages of white, black, and dark green, typically did not compete for dominance but instead commanded every piece of the support. By the time Riopelle painted “Sans titre” at the end of this decade, however, this skein of painterly markings has loosened. The surface is as vibrant as ever, but forms seem to move more freely through it.

There is a concentration of energy just off the physical centre of this painting. Riopelle was rarely literal enough to be describing an object, however, or to suggest that we see something in particular. His freedom of execution rightly transposes to the viewer. Yet there is something like a focus here, however temporary, more a concentration of energy than an image. “Sans titre” is thus the right title: Riopelle does not want to lead us in too specific a manner.

The use of abundant white is striking here and characteristic of Riopelle’s work at this time. Large areas of this pigment appear in and adjacent to the corners; smaller splinters are collected near the centre. With a sense of movement and play, the white areas are shot through with the other colours of the canvas, or more accurately, colours are dragged through one another. The result is movement and visual complexity. Paint as material and manipulated surface is asserted, but we can also see the painting as geological in its evocation of layers and seismic movement.

Riopelle’s paintings of the 1950s were often likened to both European Surrealist-inspired abstraction of the School of Paris and to American Abstract Expressionism, especially that of Jackson Pollock, however disparate their approaches were. Despite his Surrealist pedigree, Riopelle often denied that he worked with abandon. While “Sans titre” is freely exuberant in handling, on the micro level of form and colour, it is also carefully adjusted to yield an overall sense of calibrated movement. Shapes tumble towards or into the centre, framed by a less dense and largely white perimeter.

Another reason why Riopelle’s work at this time was compared with American abstraction especially was his close relationship with his New York City art dealer, Pierre Matisse (son of the famous artist). Matisse took Riopelle on in 1953 and included him in a group gallery exhibition that fall. He had his first solo show in the USA there in 1954: “Riopelle: First American Exhibition”. “Sans titre” was originally purchased from the Pierre Matisse Gallery, cementing its history in that of the sometimes fraught, always lively struggle between New York and Paris for artworld ascendence at this time.

We extend our thanks to Mark A. Cheetham for contributing the preceding essay. Mark A. Cheetham is the author of two books on abstract art: “The Rhetoric of Purity: Essentialist Theory and the Advent of Abstract Painting” and “Abstract Art Against Autonomy: Infection, Resistance, and Cure since the ‘60s”. He is a professor of Art History at the University of Toronto.
“Sans titre” by Jean Paul Riopelle soared to $504,000 with spirited bidding within the sale room in the evening auction of November 22nd, 2021. The value reached for this work by the celebrated Riopelle is one of the highest results achieved for a work dated 1959/circa 1959 by the artist. Cowley Abbott was pleased to have been entrusted with this monumental work.

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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.