LOT 020

1923 - 2002

Sans titre
oil on canvas
signed and on verso signed, dated 1957 and inscribed "1607" and variously
18 x 21 1/2 in, 45.7 x 54.6 cm

Estimate: $150,000 - $250,000 CAD

Sold for: $361,250

Preview at:

Galerie Jacques Dubourg, Paris
Arthur Tooth & Sons, London
Acquired from the above by Douglas and Helen Small of Ottawa, who were serving at the Canadian Embassy in Bonn, Germany, 1957
By descent to the present Private Collection, Vancouver

Yseult Riopelle, Jean Paul Riopelle Catalogue Raisonné, Volume 2, 1954 - 1959, 2004, reproduced page 285, catalogue #1957.152H.1957

Jean Paul Riopelle was already an acclaimed artist and avant-garde force when he moved from Montreal to Paris in the late 1940s. It was in the 1950s, however, that his remarkable abilities reached their peak and he was most widely esteemed. His international profile included showing at the Bienal de São Paulo in 1951 and 1955, in the Younger European Painters exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1953, and at the Venice Biennale in 1954 and 1962. The notable provenance of this painting tracks the artist’s increasing transatlantic importance in the 1950s. Sans titre was purchased from the venerable London gallery Arthur Tooth & Sons, established in the mid-nineteenth century. While Canadian collectors knew otherwise, to most people at this time, Riopelle was considered a European artist.

It was in the early 1950s that Riopelle perfected the signature style that we see in Sans titre, a dynamic, corporeal method that involved a vigorous treatment of the painting surface, producing an evanescent order that is at once immediate in its tactility, yet feels unbounded, galactic. Once we visually cross the frame and enter the canvas, scale seems not to matter. Kaleidoscopic both in detail and overall, in this work “small” and “large” seem irrelevant. Riopelle was a great admirer of Claude Monet’s water lily paintings: Pavane (Tribute to the Water Lilies) (Pavane [Hommage aux Nymphéas]), 1954, in the collection of National Gallery of Canada, is a direct example. In Sans titre, he creates a similar effect of immersion in a world.

Driven by the artist’s palette knife, all forms and colours in the painting are in motion. Our eye can nonetheless stop them momentarily to sense a concentration of reds near the centre, for example. But there can be no stasis. This temporary centre is counterbalanced by a large red form at the lower left, suggesting equipoise within movement. A bright blue, sky-like hue dominates the top third of the surface, intimating Riopelle’s concern for nature in the form of landscape. Yet his work was never literal; this is not a place or landscape or a state of mind. “There’s only one thing you must not do,” he said, “and that’s to live for abstraction. You must live through things.”[1]

Sans titre might appear to be spontaneous, but looking closely, we can see that it is adjusted to yield an overall sense of calibrated movement. With Riopelle, we can even speak of control, in the sense of being in control of one’s abilities. He reproduced nature’s energy but not its literal appearance. It is abstraction based on nature in a way that Monet himself could have appreciated.

We thank Mark A. Cheetham for contributing the above essay. Cheetham’s two books on abstract art offer new understandings of this form over its 100-plus-year history: The Rhetoric of Purity: Essentialist Theory and the Advent of Abstract Painting (1991) and Abstract Art Against Autonomy: Infection, Resistance, and Cure since the 60s (2006). He is a professor of art history at the University of Toronto and a freelance curator and art writer.

1. Riopelle in conversation. Gilbert Érouart, with an interview by Fernand Séguin. Translated by Donald Winkler. Concord, Ont.: House of Anansi, 1995: 36.

Douglas and Margaret Small spent many decades posted overseas with the Canadian foreign service. Douglas Small entered federal public service in 1949 and was recruited as a foreign service officer by the Department of External Affairs in 1955. He spent the next 34 years as a diplomat representing Canada, first in Bonn, West Germany, then in Lagos, Dar es Salaam and London. From 1978 to 1981, he served as ambassador to Pakistan and Afghanistan. In his last posting, from 1985 to 1989, he served as High Commissioner to New Zealand and five South Pacific countries.

Margaret Helen Small moved to Ottawa in 1949 as part of the wave of university graduates who were joining the expanding federal public service. She was hired by the Department of Finance and then became the first female officer to join the newly formed Treasury Board Secretariat. She went on to work for the Parliamentary Centre and finally for the Applebaum-Hébert review of federal cultural policy. Both Douglas and Helen were keenly involved with the National Gallery of Canada during their retirement in Ottawa.

Included with this lot is the original 1957 invoice from Arthur Tooth & Sons, London, showing the Canadian Embassy in Bonn, West Germany, as the Smalls' address at that time, with a purchase price of 180 pounds sterling. This work has remained in their family until its consignment to Heffel this spring.

Estimate: $150,000 - $250,000 CAD

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

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