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Jean-Paul Riopelle

Fans of American abstract art are likely familiar with Joan Mitchell. The painter is profiled along with several other women artists in Mary Gabriel’s recent book Ninth Street Women (Szalai). But how many of these fans are familiar with the French-Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle, Mitchell’s longtime romantic partner? Probably not many, since, as an article in Hyperallergic notes, Canadian hockey players are a lot better known than Canadian artists, even in Canada (Dunne).

My séjour in Quebec gave me the opportunity to learn about this artist and to see his work at the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec.

Riopelle was born in Montreal, in 1923, and died in 2002. He was influenced by the French poet André Breton and the European surrealist movement (“Jean-Paul Riopelle Metamporphoses“). Although his early work resembled that of Jackson Pollock, he later developed his own style, “using palette knives to build up thick, patchy surfaces in saturated colors, creating effects suggestive of stained glass and mosaics” (“Jean-Paul Riopelle, 78”).

Here are a couple of the works I saw in Quebec:

Riopelle lived with Mitchell from 1955 to 1979 (“Jean-Paul Riopelle, 78”). Mitchell died in 1992, and upon hearing of her death, Riopelle began work on the mural Tribute to Rosa Luxemburg (Wall text), shown here:

According to the wall text, “Anecdote has it that the title of the work derives from their years together. Riopelle, referencing Rosa Bonheur, a 19th century virtuoso animal artist, nicknamed Mitchell his ‘Rosa Malheur.’ Rosa Luxemburg is first and foremost the name of a German Communist Party activist whose famous coded prison letters Riopelle knew.” The museum Web site explains that the painting is more than forty meters long and consists of thirty paintings (“Jean-Paul Riopelle ‘Tribute'”).

In a recent review of an exhibit of Mitchell’s and Riopelle’s work, Joseph Nechvatal remarks, “Riopelle paints the way spiders secrete their webs. . . . Particularly with ‘15 Horsepower Citroën,’ Riopelle conveys a dazzling, stuttering, speckled visual complexity that is never far, in my mind, from the sputtering of machines.” You can judge for yourself here:

Jean-Paul Riopelle; Quinze Chevaux Citroen (15 Horsepower Citroen); 1952; Acquavella Galleries,

Works Cited

Dunne, Carey. “More Than Half of Canadians Can’t Name a Single Canadian Artist.” Hyperallergic, 1 July 2016,

“Jean-Paul Riopelle Metamorphoses.” Musée National des Beaux Arts du Québec, Accessed 13 Oct. 2019.

“Jean-Paul Riopelle, 78, Artist Inspired by the Surrealists.” The New York Times, 24 Mar. 2002,

“Jean-Paul Riopelle ‘Tribute to Rosa Luxemburg.'” Musée National des Beaux Arts du Québec, Accessed 13 Oct. 2019.

Nechvatal, Joseph. “The Passions and Posthumanism of Two Abstract Expressionists.” Hyperallergic, 2 Jan. 2019,

Szalai, Jennifer. “Ninth Street Women Shines a Welcome New Light on New York’s Postwar Art Scene.” The New York Times, 26 Sept. 2018,

Wall text for Tribute to Rosa Luxemburg, by Jean-Paul Riopelle. Musée National des Beaux Arts du Québec.


Published by Jen Rappaport

A writer, copyeditor, proofreader, translator, and website expert in New York, Jen studied English and French literature in college and graduate school and the French language in Paris, the South of France, and Quebec. She loves exploring the books and culture of francophone regions around the world.

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  1. I know Riopelle from looking at art magazines in the library some 30 years ago. HIs career doesn’t seem to have taken off as well as other Abstract Expressionists. I suspect it has a lot to do with his use of a palette knife or something similar, which gives his paintings a more traditional, painterly look. I love that look, but others may want art to be more theoretically amenable to the American movement. He had some amazing canvases and was one of my favorite abstract painters when I discovered him.


    1. Thanks for your comment. It’s a shame Riopelle is not better known. I find his paintings fascinating. Yes, his technique may have marginalized him but perhaps also his French Canadian background. He lived in the shadow of French and American artists.

      Liked by 1 person

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