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3.2.2020 by Caroline Marciniak

Jean-Paul Riopelle developed his mature style in the early 1950s: tessellated canvases that unfold like constellations, their heavy impasto applied with a palette knife directly from the tube of paint. Living in Paris and exhibiting worldwide, including at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and with Pierre Matisse Gallery from 1953–89 – which was owned by the son of Henri Matisse and promoted the European avant-garde in the US – Riopelle became the most internationally acclaimed Canadian artist of his generation. This holds still more true today, with prices for the artist’s work reaching unprecedented heights. In May 2017, at Heffel in Toronto, his Vent du nord (1952–53) sold for CA$7,438,750 (premium included), making it the second highest-grossing work by a Canadian artist at auction. (The first is Lawren Harris’s Mountain Form, 1926, CA$11,210,000.) That December, Riopelle’s Untitled (1953) sold for €4,882,500 at Christie’s in Paris. More recently, in May last year, Heffel sold two smaller canvases, Carnaval II and Incandescence (both 1953), for CA$2,281,250 each.

While Riopelle’s career spanned five decades, his oils of the 1950s command the highest prices. These works are instantly recognizable: simultaneously restrained and expansive, they thrum with myriad flights and hues, each vibrant mark intrinsic to the whole. In the 1940s, Riopelle’s loose abstractions reflected his affiliation with the automatistes in Montreal and, after his move to Paris in 1946, with André Breton and the surrealists. Yet, in the following years, he distanced himself from both groups, seeing in his paintings the forces of nature, rather than the workings of the unconscious. While their titles do not name particular landscapes, these works crackle with wind and light, with clay-red earth and blossoming trees. During this period, Riopelle developed close friendships with a number of American expatriate artists, among them Sam Francis. He met Joan Mitchell in 1955 and the two began an inspired, if tumultuous, relationship that lasted 24 years.

Today, there is a disparity between the values of Riopelle’s and Mitchell’s work at auction, with the latter realizing much higher prices. (Mitchell’s record was set in May 2018, with her Blueberry, 1969, selling for US$16,625,000.) This is, in part, due to her affiliation with the New York School as well as major retrospectives in 2002–15 and the efforts of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, which actively promotes the artist’s work. With 2023 marking Riopelle’s centenary, the newly launched Jean-Paul Riopelle Foundation – which was announced in October and is headed by Michael Audain and Manon Gauthier – is planning a programme in Canada and abroad, set to take place over the next three years.

The artist’s prices will likely climb further still. When considering a purchase, it is important to be aware of the date – there is even a difference between a 1953 Riopelle and a 1958 work, with prices being less for 60s and less still for 70s. And the condition is also significant; given the extreme impasto he applied, craquelure can often be present in certain areas, and in some cases, even small losses of paint.