Jean Paul Riopelle, Hommage aux Nymphéas – Pavane [Tribute to the Water Lilies – Pavane], 1954, Oil on canvas

Jean Paul Riopelle, Hommage aux Nymphéas – Pavane [Tribute to the Water Lilies – Pavane], 1954, oil on canvas, 300 x 550.2 cm. Purchased 1963. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Estate of Jean Paul Riopelle, (Copyright Visual Arts-CARCC, 2023)  Photo: NGC

The Art of Slow Looking: a painting by Jean Paul Riopelle

On average, a museum visitor looks at a work of art for only 15–30 seconds. This is a fact that gallery interpreters (my first job at the National Gallery of Canada) often like to share with their tour groups as they lead them through the galleries. What can one glean from an artwork in a few seconds? A first impression, perhaps. But what if you stopped and spent time with a piece, really examining it up close? What might you notice, and how might your feelings change?

Every year, the Slow Art Day initiative, founded in 2010, engages museums and galleries around the world to promote the beneficial experience of “slow looking”. The mission is simple: “help more people discover for themselves the joy of looking at and loving art”. There is no need to be an expert – we all have the skills of observation and can make discoveries when we stop to look. This year’s Slow Art Day is taking place on 15 April, but this exercise can be done any time and at every visit to a museum or gallery.

Visitors looking at paintings in the European galleries at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. 2019

Visitors looking at paintings in the European galleries of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

In today’s fast-paced, heavily digitized world, where our senses are constantly stimulated and we are used to scrolling quickly through information on a screen, it can feel challenging to slow down and focus our attention. But if one accepts the challenge of pausing and sitting with something, the effort is always worth it.

The 20th-century British novelist Iris Murdoch stressed how art and the process of looking are fundamental to ethics. She argued that art teaches the viewer to see the world from different perspectives – an opening up to think carefully about others. According to Murdoch, applying one's attention takes one out of oneself. Anyone who has ever stood before a work of art and felt themselves captivated, or moved to tears by a piece of music, or become immersed in a really good book, has experienced this feeling of transcendence through attention. Not only is taking the time to appreciate art inspiring and "good" from a philosophical standpoint, it has also been scientifically proven to be beneficial for mental health.

Jean Paul Riopelle, Hommage aux nymphéas – Pavane, 1954. Oil on canvas

Jean Paul Riopelle, Hommage aux Nymphéas – Pavane [Tribute to the Water Lilies – Pavane], 1954, oil on canvas, 300 x 550.2 cm. Purchased 1963. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Estate of Jean Paul Riopelle, (Copyright Visual Arts-CARCC, 2023)  Photo: NGC

In the NGC's Indigenous and Canadian galleries, there is a monumental painting made up of three very large canvases, covered in oil paint in a multitude of colours. This extraordinary painting is Hommage aux nymphéas – Pavane, painted by Canadian artist Jean Paul Riopelle in 1954. The thickness of the paint is what strikes one first, when looking slowly, closely. The texture is distinct, something one can really only experience when standing in front of the work itself. The paint has not been brushed on smoothly, but has been applied directly from the tube onto the canvas using a palette knife.

The rich mosaic-like texture of colour and the tripartite format are reminiscent of a stained-glass triptych. There are no figures here to tell a story, however, nor a focal point or perspective to anchor us. Instead, our eyes travel around the painting, taking in the vibrant colours and their movement.

The title Pavane refers to a Spanish dance that originated in the 16th century. This drives a new, different way of seeing of these swirling patterns of paint. The sense of energy and dynamism is palpable. One can visualize the spinning skirts and swirling feet of dancers moving, and even imagine the music. A viewer can stay here, lost in this work for a very long time.

A painter and sculptor, Jean Paul Riopelle was a leading member of the Québécois artistic group known as Les Automatistes, founded in Montreal in the 1940s. They are best known for publishing in 1948 their famous Refus global manifesto, which called for a new artistic, social and political order. Automatism was linked conceptually to Surrealism and the idea of "automatic writing", wherein the unconscious is free to take over. The great emphasis on spontaneity, freedom and breaking with tradition is visible in Riopelle’s Hommage aux nymphéas – Pavane, with the nod to the stained-glass triptych signalling his departure from the old order.

On tours in the Gallery, it is always amazing to see what happens when a tour group stops and spends time with a work. Kids sit down on the floor, adults get comfortable on a stool, and all dive in, asking questions, pointing out details, piecing together a narrative. The result ranges from increased understanding and appreciation to pure enjoyment. The aim is to come away feeling inspired and uplifted from having not only encountered, but engaged with, a work of art.


Hommage aux nymphéas – Pavane [Tribute to the Water Lilies – Pavane] by Jean Paul Riopelle is currently on view in gallery A109a at the National Gallery of Canada and will be part of the Riopelle exhibition from October 27, 2023 until April 7, 2024. Visit the Gallery on Slow Art Day, on April 15, 2023. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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