Tale of Two: The Exhibition Story
In spring 2017, John Michael Kohler Arts Center senior Curator Karen Patterson visited the show of Sophie La Rosière’s works at Daniel Faria Gallery in Toronto. Assessing Rosière’s work as “in between Fine Art and Outsider Art”, she contemplated a show at the John Michael Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan.
Sheboygan - that is in Wisconsin. How would Sophie relate to that place? Are we missing a link? Hmm. “What if”?
What we know: Florence left Sophie La Rosière’s life in 1918. It was the end of World War I. She simply isn’t mentioned anymore in Sophie’s notes, her correspondence, no one reported on seeing her in Nogent-Sur-Marne, France… But wait, she could not have gone far, she wasn’t experienced in travelling, she had no money, the country was laying in ashes, all Europe was…
“What if“ - Florence, Sophie’s partner and lover for a decade, 15 years younger than her, would have done what so many did: emigrate. As a French woman, in between the two World Wars, at her mature age… possible?
Possible! Let’s just research….
In summer 2017, I travelled to Sheboygan, visiting the JMKAC and was introduced to professionals in the field of local history, art history and museums-practice. I listened and explored and asked my travel partner, Brian Lynn, to collect some video footage of these encounters. ...a seed was planted, a seed that would grow its own roots, reaching out and weaving my fictional character into the real fascinating local history, economy and culture of Wisconsin in the 1930s.
Something truly fascinating happened - something that is somehow reserved to fictional characters: Florence materialized fully now at the same time in my Toronto studio, as she did in Wisconsin.
By December 2017, Karen Patterson and Faythe Levine had undertaken expansive research in the archives of the Layton School of Art and the Archives of Charlotte Partridge and Miriam Frink. They conducted video-interviews with colleges at Wisconsin art institutions, and they shaped the look and feel of an exhibition showcasing both artists - Sophie La Rosière and Florence Hasard. An endeavour titled: Tale of Two.
Sophie La Rosière: Biography
Born in 1867 as the only child of a small manufacturer, Sophie grew up in the town of Nogent-sur-Marne, outside of Paris. While accompanying her father on work errands as a child, she met Madeleine Smith, with whom she would develop a lifelong friendship. Born into an aristocratic family, Madeleine was raised with her sister Jeanne by her widowed mother. Stemming from this friendship, Sophie developed a deep interest in collecting and pressing plants, drawing, and painting. Raised Catholic, Sophie was sent to a convent in Aubervilliers for her early, formative years, a time that impeded on her artist interests. However, she would further and intensely pursue these interests after her parent’s passing: from 1905 onwards, inheriting her parents home she decided to enroll into the Académie La Grande Chaumière in Paris to be trained as an artist. There she met Florence, 15 years younger than her, who was hired as an occasional life model, and fell in love. Over the following decade the two artists moved in together and Sophie obsessively documented her passionate - but hidden - relationship with Florence on panels of salvaged wood, dismantled furnitures and endless piles of drawings.
During the First World War, Florence decided to work as a nurse in the military hospital that Madeleine Smith and her sister had established in their chateau in Nogent sur Marne. By the end of the war, Florence ended her relationship with Sophie and moved back to Paris.
Sophie continued to live in the small house in Nogent-sur-Marne she had inherited from her parents and maintained an unassuming, secluded lifestyle. In 1946, she moved to the nearby retirement home established by the estate of Jeanne and Madeleine Smith to support struggling artists in Nogent-sur-Marne. She died there in 1948 at the age of eighty-one.
Sophie La Rosière: Legacy
The inventory of Sophie’s work consists of 292 paintings, drawings, sketches, and some plaster works. For a long time these works were considered amateurish, mere Sunday-painter quality. However, two recently discovered works in the storage rooms of the retirement home sparked an extensive investigation into one facet of her production: the black paintings, consisting of black-beeswax encaustic underneath which oil paintings can be found. These paintings are considered of interest for their abstract, monochrome appearance and their strange iconography found in the layers underneath; x-ray investigation shows original, vibrantly colored oil-paintings that reject any concrete classification in relation to the works of well-known peers of her time.
Sophie and Florence’s work
Philip Monk, an art historian and writer working on the catalogue raisonné of Sophie La Rosière’s oeuvre, identified a number of paintings formerly attributed to Sophie as actually having been painted by Florence in the 1920s due to the very different painting characteristics. When comparing Sophie’s highly sensual paintings, showing an erotic iconography of female bodies, with Florence’s pulsating abstract style, it becomes clear the two women diverged into different realms of work. Thanks to Monk’s assessment, we were able to uncover Florence’s body of work, both as part of Sophie’s oeuvre and now in Wisconsin.