L’Inconnue de la Seine

I came across this story recently, when researching the background of my fabulous new client.

To my surprise, I found that one of the main inspirations for the founder was the tale of an unknown girl whose body was pulled from the Seine over a hundred years ago. The story has some madly romantic and morbid details, and has inspired numerous books, poems and plays over the years.

Some time around 1900, the body of a drowned girl was taken from the Seine in Paris. When she was examined at the Paris Morgue (then located behind Notre-Dame), there were no marks on her body or signs of violence. They presumed it was a suicide.

Regarded at that time as a great attraction, the Paris Morgue would display its unidentified dead to the public, in the hope that the bodies would be claimed. However being good turn-of-the-centurians, this became a spectacle in Paris; everyone would roll out in their thousands to have a good gawk at some bloated corpses (I presume this human desire for gore can still be seen on the innumerable CSI-style shows on telly). But despite the thousands of people who must have seen the Inconnue (unknown woman), nobody came forward to claim the body.

As to whether it was standard practice or not is unknown, but a plaster cast was made of her face. Perhaps the workers at the Paris Morgue were taken by her beauty, or the peaceful, happy expression on her face, with a kind of half-smile.

Photographer Albert Rudomine shot this in 1927, using the same lighting and set-ups as his other portraits of actors.—->

Knowing a good tragedy when they saw one, the French ran with this idea. They started rolling out hundreds of death masks of the Inconnue, which were apparently a must in the living rooms of bohemian types and thesps of all kinds. Ghastly! Up these with those people who buy artwork from serial killers I reckon. And apparently as common as those ceramic flying ducks. In my travels online I’ve found a few different versions of the mask, in photographs and models. This is because the original cast had been photographed, and new, highly-detailed casts created from the film negatives.

<—- Presumably an imitation, from eBay.

After the masks were produced en masse, the story began to unfurl; not only did she throw herself into the river, but she did it because of an unrequited love. Or she was jilted, or murdered, or dead long before she found her end in the depths of the river. Writers everywhere, from Albert Camus to Anaïs Nin and Vladimir Nabokov drew upon the Inconnue for inspiration. She became a long-lost daughter, an orphan, a music-hall dancer, a muse. In reality, she was probably a peasant or beggar on the streets of Paris.

Whoever she was, her appearance of happiness in death makes a good yarn, and according to writer Al Alvarez, a whole generation of German girls modelled their looks on her. He suggests that the Inconnue became the erotic ideal of the period, as Bardot was for the 1950s.

Pooh-poohers like to say that the mask was taken from an entirely different woman, a living model known to the mouleur (plaster cast maker). According to some sources it would be impossible to even make a cast like this from a corpse.

Man Ray took this shot in the ‘60s, part of a collaboration with novelist Louis Aragon —->

The story of the Inconnue does in fact have a happy ending. In the ‘50s a toymaker and publisher of kids’ books designed a new doll to be used to practice resuscitation. He figured that the doll needed to be not only realistic, but human enough to inspire people to want to save lives. And that the big boofy blokes he was training wouldn’t pash anything other than a good-lookin’ sheila. Using the face of the Inconnue, he designed the first resuscitation doll called ‘Resusci-Anne’ and the rest is history. Creepier sources say that hers is ‘the most kissed face in history.’

12 thoughts on “L’Inconnue de la Seine

  1. La belle epoche,eh? And that was sometime around the time my Dad was in Paris, too.I must be sick becauseI find something beautiful and compelling in this story. Mai the Gothic Romantic.The Seine, the Seine,When will I againMeet her thereGreet her thereOn the moonlit banks of the Seine.In any case, it beats marrying goats and dogs.

  2. Indeed the story seems shrouded in mystery – and many of the sites I checked contradicted each other, so i did the best i could!It’s entirely likely it was a tale crocked up by some bored mortuary workers and seized upon by the public. But I prefer to pretend!!

  3. I too believe it was a cooked up tale for lord knows what purpose…money…fame…infamy. Who doesn’t love a romantic story?:A German researcher claims to have followed the “trail” of L’inconnue, eventually finding the factory where the plaster casts were made, and the unknown herself – alive and well – the daughter of a very ingenious manufacturer. Another daughter of a craftsman – this time of a Parisian who made plaster casts, stated that her father said it was impossible to make such a mask from a corpse, and that the original was a model from the studio.Even the year of death cannot be agreed upon. Many sources list the date of death as 1900, despite the fact that she first appeared in literature in 1900 (the book: “The Worshipper of the Image” was written some years before, putting the mask into existence before then), but some researchers claim the hairstyle puts her death at least 40 years earlier.Other account:Claire Forestier, a family member of the Lorenzi family, who were responsible for the creation of the original, believes that the model was not dead when the cast was taken. She works in the family modeling workshop, and says that a dead body from a river would not have such clear features. sources: http://everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=1804948http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inconnue_de_la_Seine

  4. I can't understand why it should be called sick to own one of these masks. I was given a present of a resusci-Anne which is now in a frame on my stairway; one of those made in bisque porcelaine for a company which produces resuscitation machines. She's rather beautiful, with an enigmatic, Mona Lisa type smile.

  5. @ Shutterbug: Ican understand that. Because I, too, feel this way. I think it is really morbid to put the face of a girl who committed suicide by drowning on your wall.There's more to this story, though. In the time this girl was found, 306 people have comitted suicide by drowning in the Seine in only 1 year. The bodies were put behind a cathedral, so people could come to identify them. The highest number of bodies found in 1 day was 16. She was one of these 16. She was never to be identified. The reason she is so known is because she still had a smile on her face when she was found. I can understand they ever made a death mask of her face, if they really thought she was so beautiful. But what I can't underdtand is why people find this story to be so beautiful, because in my vision it's rather creepy. To me it's not a love story, nor a romantic one. No one will ever know why she ever committed suicide, or IF she ever did.

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