Philip Monk

Curator, Exhibition at the Art Gallery of York University

The Mystery of Sophie La Rosière

The AGYU has spared no expense to ship to Toronto and reconstruct the interior of the studio of French artist Sophie La Rosière (1867-1948), which has lain abandoned for over ninety years. It is appropriate since Toronto had a hand in the discovery of this unknown artist in the first place. Long story short: thinking that they had purchased two modern monochrome paintings by a sixties French artist while on a trip to Paris, two Toronto collectors accidentally discover that the works actually are by an unknown painter who worked earlier in the century. In January 2016, as a result of similar works discovered at the Maison Nationale des Artistes in Nogent-sur-Marne, France, they engage the C2RMF—Centre de recherche et de restauration des musées de France—to x-ray the encaustic panels. The x-rays surprisingly reveal two erotic paintings hidden beneath the black encaustic.

This discovery set off a line of inquiry. Who was Sophie La Rosière and why is nothing known about her artistic career? Furthermore, and more strangely, why were the paintings disguised and hidden under an obscuring layer of encaustic, which nonetheless has protected them?

There are no definitive answers, but a few things have been learned about this artist that allow us partially to reconstruct her history, but without the same authority as reconstructing her studio. Art historians and conservators are undertaking the forensic investigation based on the physical paintings, historians are delving into her history, and psychoanalysts are speculating on what trauma caused her to cover her works but not destroy them. Meanwhile feminists are advocating for her place in art history.

What we now know is that Sophie La Rosière never intended to have a public life as a painter and actually intended never to reveal the very fact that she painted. She never purchased canvas, instead painting on dismantled furniture or backs of doors that could be hidden away. After some trauma—believed to be the end of her love affair with the artists’ model Florence in 1917—she obscured all history of their encounter, now submerged in a remarkable series of erotic paintings (revealed only in x-ray, though), which as well was her history as an artist.

The discovery of these paintings ultimately led to the discovery of her studio in the childhood home in Nogent-sur-Marne she inherited on her parents’ death in 1904 and 1905, when she began her secret life as a painter. Reconstructing her studio here in Toronto allows us the opportunity to further unravel this remarkable mystery and bring to light an unjustly obscured (though, admittedly, self-obscured) artist.

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