People & Culture

Honouring the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jean Paul Riopelle

A revered artist, Riopelle considered the Canadian wilderness to be his muse 

  • Published Jun 28, 2023
  • Updated Sep 29
  • 741 words
  • 3 minutes
[ Disponible en français ]
Jean Paul Riopelle, who revelled in his reputation as a woodsman and created many works inspired by nature, was known for his depictions of snow geese, owls, caribou and moose. The colourful L'Orignal rouge is his most famous moose. (Photo: L’Original Rouge, 1981, lithograph on arches paper, 65.7 X 83.3 CM, © Estate of Jean Paul Riopelle / Socan (2022))
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Jean Paul Riopelle loved to get his hands — and teeth — on snow geese. He would hunt the birds, carry them home, place the corpses on canvas and spray paint around them to create ghostly images. Then, he would cook and eat them. The geese are depicted most spectacularly in his masterwork, L’Hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, a triptych spanning more than 40 metres and so full of motion that one almost expects it to fly off the wall at Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec in Quebec City, the birds swooshing out the door in a cacophony of honking.

A huge mural honouring Riopelle was unveiled last fall in Montreal to launch a year of celebrations around the centenary of his birth. (Photo: Nicolas Carrier)
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Because the geese showed up so often in his work, some art critics thought they might be self-portraits or some kind of totem. But artist Bonnie Baxter says Riopelle incorporated the birds into his artworks for the simple reason that they were available. Baxter knew Riopelle well, working with him for almost a decade as the master printmaker of all his engravings. “He loved nature, and there are a lot of geese here, and they fly over,” she explains. “Nature and wildlife were always part of everything he did.”

In 2023, the centenary of his birth, Riopelle’s appreciation for Canada’s wildlife is on display in multiple art exhibitions across his native Quebec and as part of a retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, an extravaganza that will pair Riopelle’s work with that of his contemporaries. Other exhibitions this summer include a show at Galerie Montcalm in Gatineau, Que., highlighting prints of animals, birds and plants, and a showcase at the library in Montmagny, a Quebec town close to tiny l’Isle-aux-Grues (Island of the Cranes) in the St. Lawrence River where Riopelle lived his last years painting and watching geese flying to and from nearby Île-aux-Oies (Island of the Geese).

Over the years, Jean Paul Riopelle has become a mythological figure in his home province of Quebec, where Quebecers are dazzled both by his international success and his reputation as a “wild man,” says Michel Cheff, curator of the Galerie Montcalm exhibition, adding: “He represents the true myth of the artist.” The tales are legion, including one where the artist is said to have tossed some of his valuable paintings into a Parisian fireplace — after a few drinks, of course — when he ran out of wood to keep the fire burning. 

Riopelle’s fame took off in the 1940s in Canada and in France, where he lived for three decades. In Canada, he joined the Automatistes movement of Quebec artists whose 1948 anti-establishment manifesto, Refus Global, is credited with helping launch Quebec’s Quiet Revolution.

Geese and other birds figured prominently in a 2003 Canada Post stamp series issued a year after his death. (Photo: Canada Post Corporation, 2003)
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Though his body of work encompassed many styles, the artist’s trademark large mosaic-style abstracts are his best-known pieces, the oil paint slathered onto massive canvases with a palette knife. These are the Riopelle works that sell for millions of dollars each, cherished by the art establishment and found hanging in many of the western world’s top art museums. In France, these paintings are remembered as the work of “the peerless trapper,” as André Breton, the French surrealist painter, nicknamed Riopelle. Indeed, Riopelle liked nothing more than to be in the bush, fishing and hunting. He revelled in his reputation as a rough-hewn backwoods Canadien, though he was, in reality, the son of a wealthy Montreal architect.

Over the years, Riopelle gradually spent more and more time in Canada, eventually moving permanently in 1989 to Sainte-Marguerite-du-Lac-Masson in Quebec’s Laurentians. But even while living, painting and party- ing in France, he would frequently visit Canada, travelling to destinations in Quebec and the Arctic to get his fill of the wilderness.

As Riopelle aged, his art increasingly became a mélange of the abstract and the figurative, the figures usually animals and birds. In total, the prolific artist created about 6,000 paintings and unique prints.

Riopelle described his technique as “going towards nature.” He said he was trying not to mimic nature but to create a new visual language derived from nature. The results are highly stylized birds and other animals that are recognizable yet incorporated into an abstract world. “He takes the essence of things,” says Cheff.

These depictions of wildlife are meant to be taken literally, the curator adds. There are no hidden meanings or messages. They are simply celebrations of nature as seen and felt by “the peerless trapper.”

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This story is from the July/August 2023 Issue

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