Red : fiction – Black: facts
XIXth/ XXth century
1855: Henri Basset (married to Marnie Basset) opens a small cutlery factory business in Nogent-sur-Marne, south-east outskirts of Paris.
1857: birth of Jeanne Smith in Paris, eldest daughter of Jules Smith (d. 1868), Clerk of the Civil Court of First Instance in the Seine department. Originally English, his ancestors immigrated to France in the eighteenth century. Jeanne’s mother, Léontine Lesouëf, came from a wealthy family that dealt in precious metals.
1864: birth of Madeleine Smith in Paris.
1867: birth of Sophie Basset (later known as La Rosière) in Nogent-sur-Marne. She is the only child of the marriage.
1876: During the summer Sophie and Madeleine Smith meet on the Smith family estate in Nogent-sur-Marne when Sophie accompanies her father on a business visit. They begin what will be a life-long relationship.
1883: Jeanne Smith develops an interest in photography. She meets the Swiss-German painter Ottilie Roederstein (1859-1937) and they become lovers. Roederstein comes to Paris to study at the atelier of salon painter Jean Jacques Henner, one of the only studios open in Paris to women in the second half of the nineteenth century.
1883: Sophie is placed in the Sisters Convent in Aubervilliers (north-east outskirts of Paris) as a result of her parents’ anxiety about the intense relationship she had developed with Madeleine Smith.
1887: Madeleine begins to paint and from 1891-1894 studies in Paris at the atelier of Jean-Jacques Henner, sometimes serving as his model. She has modest success, winning a bronze medal in 1891 at the Salon de la société des artistes français for her portrait of Joan of Arc, for which Ottilie Roederstein served as the model. Madeleine develops an intimate relationship with Henner who is thirty-five years her elder.
1888: Sophie leaves the convent to attend to her father who has suffered an aneurism and has been left handicapped. She will live with her parents until their deaths in 1904 and 1905. Sophie secretly renews her friendship with Madeleine Smith and regularly visits the Smith’s domain. Little is known of this period of her life save for her visits to the Smith sisters and her practice as a Sunday painter.
1905: Henner dies after an illness, which ends the project of marriage to Madeleine Smith.
1905: After the death of her parents, Sophie inherits the family home where she lives alone. She begins to integrate herself into the Parisian art scene by attending the art school La Grande Chaumière, which had only been recently founded in 1902 by two women artists, Martha Settler and Alice Danenberg.
1906: Sophie meets Florence at La Grande Chaumière. Florence is also from Nogent but fifteen years younger than Sophie, and is from humble origins. Florence models at La Grande Chaumière as well as at the Académie Russe (1908), Académie Vassilieff (1909), and then in Russian émigré artist Marie Vassilieff’s new studio in Montparnasse. As a result of her developing friendship with Sophie, she will occasionally poses for the Smith sisters in their Nogent studio.
1906: Madeleine Smith meets the scholar and historian Pierre Champion, son of the publisher Honoré Champion, while he is cataloguing the print, manuscript, and book collection of Madeleine’s and Jeanne’s late uncle Auguste Lesouëf.
1907: While often in Paris, Sophie steadily develops a more and more intimate relationship with Florence.
1907: Madeleine Smith marries Pierre Champion, who is sixteen years her younger.
1908: Florence moves in with Sophie in Nogent. It is during the period 1908-1918 that the two maintain a vibrant romantic relationship where painting occupies a central part.
1914: Jeanne and Madeleine Smith open an auxiliary military hospital (number 73) on their property where Florence works as a nurse until 1918 attending to wounded soldiers. During the war Madeleine also directs the construction of a library on the property to house their uncle’s collection.
1918: Florence returns to live in Paris and all trace of her vanishes.
1919: Pierre Champion elected mayor of Nogent.
1940: death of Madeleine Smith.
1942: death of Pierre Champion.
1943: death of Jeanne Smith.
1944: With the execution of the Smith-Champion legacy to the French state, and according to the two sisters’ wishes, a national old age home for artists is created on their estate, which still functions to today. Through their will, and in acknowledgement of their friendship, Sophie is invited to be one of the first residents.
1947: Sophie La Rosière moves into the Maison Nationale des artistes, bringing with her, according to a 1947 medical record, “a
set of black artworks painted on dismantled furniture.” The record also specifies that “some paintings are made on doors panels” and that the resident “refuses to separate from them.” A few years later Marie Vassilieff begins her residence there, where she dies in 1957.
1948: death of Sophie La Rosière.
1976: Creation by the French government of the FNAGP (Fondation Nationale des Arts Graphiques et Plastiques) to manage two bequests made to the state at the beginning and the middle of the twentieth century: a mansion once belonging to Baron Salomon de Rothschild that is now the foundation’s headquarters in the VIIIth arrondissement of Paris, and the Smith sisters’ large property in Nogent-sur-Marne, including La Maison Nationale des artistes. In accordance with the Smith sisters’ wishes, the Lesouëf archive originally stored in the Lesouëf Library – built on the Nogent estate during the First World War – is transferred to the BNF (French National Library). Newly vacant, the Lesouëf library will over time become filled with books and artworks belonging to former residents of the Maison Nationale des Artistes. These objects sometimes stay there indefinitely, if not retrieved by family members after their owner dies.
2013: Rui Amaral, the director/curator of the Toronto gallery Scrap Metal, recently opened by the collectors Samara Walbohm and Joe Shlesinger, inventories of two black monochrome artworks in the collection, both made on wooden door-panels. Rui is informed by Samara and Joe that the paintings were bought at a yard sale in Saint-Germain-des-Prés (Paris) during the 1980s. As monochromes, the paintings reminded them of Parisian abstraction of the 50s and 60s (led by Pierre Soulages), but what particularly struck them was the medium. They bought the artworks on a whim, and kept them as a romantic gesture, despite their discordance with the rest of the collection.
2014/2015: Mélanie Bouteloup (Director of Bétonsalon – Center for Art and Research and of Villa Vassilieff) and Virginie Bobin (Head of Programs at Villa Vassilieff) research Marie Vassilieff’s life and artworks and give her name to the new arts center and residency space administered by Bétonsalon, which is located in the artist’s former studio, off a small dead-end road in Montparnasse.
Spring 2014: Rui Amaral meets Mélanie Bouteloup in Paris to discuss a potential collaboration. On the same day, Mélanie is expected at La Maison Nationale des Artistes, Nogent-sur-Marne, where she is to meet with Gérard Alaux, FNAGP director, to discuss some documents related to Marie Vassilieff. In order to be efficient, Mélanie invites Rui to come along, as it would be a splendid occasion for him to discover this historical heritage and to visit the contemporary art gallery, La Maison d’art Bernard Anthonioz, also located on the property. During quick tour of the estate, Rui Amaral spots a black door, installed along the wall in the Lesouëf library, that bears striking similarities to the black artworks in Samara Walbohm and Joe Shlesinger’s collection.
May 2015: An investigation led by the Toronto collectors and the FNAGP begins. The C2RMF (Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France) is brought in to analyze the artworks found in Toronto and Nogent-sur-Marne.
January 2016: Thanks to X-ray analysis, the C2RMF discovers under the black encaustic paint an underlayer in oils that reveals an iconography of an erotic nature. The style remains difficult to date, but further, multidisciplinary, enquiry has allowed investigators to attribute the works to Sophie La Rosière and to achieve a better understanding of her life and work.
The chronology of The Sophie La Rosière Project arose from research conducted over three years by Iris Häussler and Catherine Sicot, and was used to prepare the various participants who took part in the interviews. The chronology was exhibited at La Villa Vassilieff as part the inaugural exhibition, Groupe Mobile, in the winter/spring of 2016. It was shown alongside a video walk-through of Sophie La Rosière’s studio, located in Iris Häussler’s home in Toronto from 2009 to August 2016. The chronology (in progress)s has been published in Iris Häussler, The Sophie La Rosière project / Résidence at La Villa Vassilieff, May 2016, La Villa Vassilieff and the FNAGP (Fondation des arts graphiques et plastiques), Fall 2016, Paris.
PS: The biography of Sophie La Rosière may be subject to further changes.