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Jean Paul Riopelle was born in Montreal in 1923. He studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Montreal from 1943-44 and had his first solo exhibition in 1945. In 1946 he participated in the first Automatist Exhibition in Montreal. He and Leduc organized an automatists' exhibition at Galerie de Luxembourg in Paris in 1947, and the following year Riopelle took up permanent residence there.
He studied under Paul-Émile Borduas in the 1940s and was a member of Les Automatistes movement. He was one of the signers of the Refus global manifesto. In 1949 he moved to Paris and continued his career as an artist, where he commercialized on his image as a "wild Canadian". In 1959 he began a relationship with the American painter Joan Mitchell. Living together throughout the 1960s, they kept separate homes and studios near Giverny, where Monet had lived. They influenced one another greatly, as much intellectually as artistically, but their relationship was a stormy one, fueled by alcohol.The relationship ended in 1979. His 1992 painting Hommage à Rosa Luxemburg is Riopelle's tribute to Mitchell, who died that year, and is regarded as a high point of his later work.
Riopelle's 1969 work La Joute was originally located in the Parc Olympique, in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district of Montreal. The work is an homage to his boyhood hockey heroes. Its relocation to the Place Jean-Paul-Riopelle during the redevelopment of the Quartier international de Montréal in 2003 provoked controversy and outrage from residents of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, who claimed that moving it from the Parc Olympique deprived it of the context required for its full meaning as an homage to sport.
Those who supported the move, including the Quebec government, Riopelle's heirs, and the artwork's owner the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, argued that moving it would allow a proper homage to Riopelle, and that it would allow the work to be more widely seen and exhibited as the artist intended, whereas its previous location had been inaccessible and had not included the fountain or fire elements Riopelle designed.
Subsequently, Riopelle's work has been extensively exhibited internationally, including the Guggenheim International and the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York; Museum of Modern Art in Brazil; the Galerie d'Art Moderne in Basel, Switzerland; the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa; the XXVI Venice Biennial in Italy, and the XXXI International Biennial of Art in Italy where he was awarded the Unesco prize in 1962.
In 1969 he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada, and began to spend more time in Canada. He was specially recognized by UNESCO for his work. One of his largest compositions was originally intended for the Toronto airport, but is now in the Opéra Bastille in Paris. In 1988 he was made an Officer of the National Order of Quebec and was promoted to Grand Officer in 1994. In 2000 Riopelle was inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame.
In June, 2006 the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts organized a retrospective exhibition which was presented at the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia and the Musee Cantini in Marseilles, France. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has a number of his works, spanning his entire career, in their permanent collection.