Jean-Paul Riopelle was born in 1923 in Montreal, Canada. He began lessons in drawing at the age of ten and went on to study engineering, architecture and photography at the École Polytechnique. In 1942 he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts de Montréal but shifted his studies to École du Meuble, studying under Paul-Émile Borduas and graduating in 1945.
After reading André Breton’s Le Surréalisme et la Peinture, Riopelle broke with the traditional conventions of painting to become a member of Les Automatistes – a group of dissident Québécois artists – and experiment with non-representational painting. In 1947 Riopelle moved to Paris, where, after a brief association with the Surrealists – among them André Breton and Samuel Beckett – he held his first solo exhibition at Galerie La Dragonne.
During the 1940s, Riopelle’s style changed quickly from Surrealism to Lyrical Abstraction. Squeezing paint straight from the tube, often onto large canvases, and using a palette knife, spatula or even trowel to craft dense, large-scale mosaics, Riopelle began to create powerful atmospheres. Mistakenly thought to be employing a dripping technique similar to Jackson Pollock, Riopelle’s effects actually came from throwing large quantities of paint onto the stretched canvas. Applying copious amounts of paint to the surface, his technique allowed him to paint in thick layers, producing extreme peaks and troughs which became as important as his use of colour. Deliberately juxtaposing depths of paint so that light reflected off the surface not just in different directions but with varying intensity, Riopelle created a third element which played an equally crucial role in his paintings: range of gloss.
In 1952 Riopelle received an Honourable Mention at the São Paulo Art Biennial. In 1953 he showed at the Younger European Painters exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The following year Riopelle began exhibiting at the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. Works by Riopelle – along with those of B. C. Binning and Paul-Émile Borduas – represented Canada at the Venice Biennale in 1954. In 1959 he began a relationship with the American painter Joan Mitchell. They lived together throughout the 1960s, keeping separate homes and studios near Giverny in France. Riopelle’s 1992 painting Hommage à Rosa Luxemburg is his tribute to Mitchell and regarded as a high point of his later work.
During the 1960s Riopelle diversified his means of expression turning to ink on paper, watercolours, lithography, collage and oils as well as experimenting with sculptural installation. In 1962 he was the sole artist to represent Canada at the Venice Biennale, where he won the UNESCO prize. Subsequent retrospectives of Riopelle’s work were held at the National Gallery of Canada in 1963 and at the Musée du Québec in 1967 as well as the Fondation Maeght, Saint Paul-de-Vence, France in 1971 and the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1972. In 1972 Riopelle returned to Québec and built a studio at Sainte-Marguerite-du-Lac-Masson. He discovered the black and white landscapes of the Great North, inspiring the Icebergs series of 1977 and 1978.
During the 1980s Riopelle began to work with more representational subject matters, at the same time as abandoning traditional painting methods in favour of aerosol spray cans. In 1981 he became the first signatory of the Refus Global manifesto to be awarded the prestigious Prix Paul-Émile-Borduas. A large retrospective of his work was held at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris that same year. He lived his last years at Isle-aux-Grues, an isolated island situated in the St. Lawrence River and died in 2002. A major retrospective of his work was held at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg in 2006. In 2017 his painting Vent du Nord sold at auction for over $6m.