‘When I hesitate, I don’t paint. When I paint, I don’t hesitate’

Specialist Etienne de Sallon on Jean-Paul Riopelle — the French Canadian artist who ‘lived life in the fast lane’ and used a knife to create his powerful abstract canvases

Jean-Paul Riopelle moved to Paris from his native Quebec in 1946,’ says specialist Etienne de Sallon, introducing the artist who became a key figure of Abstract Expressionism. ‘He was really a larger-than-life character — he used to drive crazy cars and had a boat. He lived life in the fast lane.’

In Paris, Riopelle met André Breton, the founder of Surrealism, whose groundbreaking text Le Surréalisme et la Peinture he had read the year before. Although he became close to the group, he retained a separate identity, marketing himself as a ‘wild Canadian’ and exhibiting alone. 

This individualist streak was reflected in Riopelle’s painting, in which volume, colour and the ‘gloss’ of reflected light became essential. ‘He started to paint in a more abstract style,’ Sallon continues. ‘He didn’t use brushes, but used a knife to apply paint directly to the canvas, holding three or four tubes of colour in his fist at one time.’

The resulting compositions give an abstract suggestion of landscape. ‘Nature had a great influence on his painting, but Riopelle never said what kind of landscape he painted,’ says Sallon. ‘That’s for the viewer to project; that’s the force of his work.’

Three works by Jean-Paul Riopelle (see below) are offered in the auction of Collection Bjäringer on 20 October at Christie’s in Paris.