Arts & CultureJean Paul Riopelle’s abstract legacy

Jean Paul Riopelle’s abstract legacy

The Canadian abstract art scene is no stranger to Jean Paul Riopelle. It has been a century since the artist’s birth and in honour of his work, the National Gallery of Canada has introduced the “Riopelle: Crossroads Through Time” retrospective. Running from October 27, 2023 to April 7, 2024, the exhibition presents Riopelle as the 20th-century trailblazer he was, but through a 21st-century lens. 


Recognized for his innovation, Riopelle was awarded the 1958 Prix International Guggenheim and the 1962 Unesco prize. His captivating paintings are treasured around the world and showcased  in iconic galleries like The Museum of Modern Art in New York, Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario and Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada. 


Jean Paul Riopelle, Hommage aux Nymphéas – Pavane (Tribute to the Water Lilies – Pavane), 1954.


The Canadian painter and sculptor from Quebec is known for his abstract techniques, but he’s also regarded for his contribution to socio-political and cultural movements that helped transform Quebec in the 60s. Riopelle joined the Automatistes movement of Quebec artists which helped launch Quebec’s Quiet revolution and signed the Surrealist manifesto Rupture inaugurale. This manifesto shook up cultural and moral certainties of Quebec society, projecting open-mindedness and challenging its traditional values. 


Jean Paul Riopelle,  Le Perroquet vert (The Green Parrot), 1949.


Riopelle Paintings

Riopelle became one of the most famous global painters, particularly in Europe. Known for his expressive freedom, some popular work featured in the National Gallery of Canada retrospective includes Le Perroquet vert (The Green Parrot),  Hibou accompagné (Accompanied Owl) and Chicago II. 


Going against impressionism and representational works Riopelle took an expressive approach to his art. His paintings appeared multi-dimensional through his use of the pallet knife, a lesser-used technique at the time. Squeezed from a tube of paint, Riopelle applied colours directly onto canvas with a pallet knife, forming expressive hard-edge shapes and complex colour combinations. 


The experimental approach to his paintings represented the tumultuous times in Quebec and the yearning for openness and expression. Today, they can be looked at as a time capsule, reflecting on art’s influence of change. 



Expressive Sculpture

Made of casted bronze, wood and metal, Riopelle’s “Hibou Accompagné” combines nature with an unusual mechanical look. His sculptures often mimicked natural beings, and although they lack colour, the style remains consistent with his emphasis on texture. Patterns and indents within each sculptured material carry Riopelle’s passion for self expression. The sharp edges further demonstrate the freeness he desired.


Riopelle, Durantin Studio, 1952. Photo by John Craven.


The Jean Paul Riopelle Foundation

Launched in Montreal in 2019, the Jean Paul Riopelle foundation seeks to carry on Riopelle’s legacy, creating spaces to communicate his vision and passion for art. The foundation collaborates with museums and galleries worldwide, encouraging exhibitions and artistic projects to spark admiration and future creativity. The foundation describes him as “fearless” in his experimental artistic approach, inspiring new generations to come. 


Loved reading about this retrospective? Read Mark Rothko: Behind the legacy and the Louis Vuitton Foundation Retrospective.



Stephanie Beattie is a Glossi Mag contributor.


In her final year of journalism school at Toronto Metropolitan University, Stephanie loves painting, Bob Dylan and caramel lattes.


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