L'Inconnue de la Seine (French for "the unknown woman of the Seine") was an unidentified young woman whose death mask became a popular fixture on the walls of artists' homes after 1900. Her visage was the inspiration for numerous literary works.
According to an often-repeated story, the body of the young woman was pulled out of the Seine River at the Quai de Louvre in Paris around the late 1880s. The body showed no signs of violence, and suicide was suspected.
A pathologist at the Paris morgue was so taken by her beauty that he had a moulder make a plaster cast death mask of her face. According to other accounts, the mask was taken from the daughter of a mask manufacturer in Germany. The identity of the girl was never discovered. The moulder who took the cast of the face was believed to be based at the Lorenzi family model-making firm. Claire Forestier, a member of the Lorenzi family, believes that the model was not dead when the cast was taken. She works in the family modelling workshop, and says that a dead body from a river would not have such clear features. She estimated the age of the model at no more than 16, given the firmness of the skin.
In the following years, numerous copies were produced. The copies quickly became a fashionable morbid fixture in Parisian Bohemian society. Albert Camus and others compared her enigmatic smile to that of the Mona Lisa, inviting numerous speculations as to what clues the eerily happy expression in her face could offer about her life, her death, and her place in society.
The popularity of the figure is also of interest to the history of artistic media, relating to its widespread reproduction. The original cast had been photographed, and new casts were created back from the film negatives. These new casts displayed details that are usually lost in bodies taken from the water, but the apparent preservation of these details in the visage of the cast seemed to only reinforce its authenticity.
Critic A. Alvarez wrote in his book on suicide, The Savage God: "I am told that a whole generation of German girls modeled their looks on her." According to Hans Hesse of the University of Sussex, Alvarez reports, "the Inconnue became the erotic ideal of the period, as Bardot was for the 1950s. He thinks that German actresses like Elisabeth Bergner modeled themselves on her. She was finally displaced as a paradigm by Greta Garbo."
The face of the unknown woman was used for the head of the first aid mannequin Rescue Annie. It was created by Peter Safar and Asmund Laerdal in 1958 and was used starting in 1960 in numerous CPR courses. Therefore, the face has been called by some "the most kissed face" of all time.
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
The Mystery of L'Inconnue de la Seine
Posted by M. Christian