L’Inconnue de la Seine

The L’Inconnue de la Seine, or the ‘Unknown of the Seine’, was an unidentified woman found in Paris’ Seine River in the late 1880s. She became an icon in European culture during the turn of the 20th Century, prompting a number of artistic works including stories, sculptures and even a ballet. Her death mask was reproduced and hung in homes all over the continent, and this image of the unknown woman eventually became the inspiration for the modern CPR doll.

The tale of L’Inconnue

The legend of the Inconnue tells that sometime in the late 1880s, Paris police officers spotted a body in the Seine and pulled her ashore. The young girl had died as a result of drowning, but it was unclear how she came to be in the water. She was taken to the city’s mortuary and laid out on display, in the hope that whoever was missing her would reveal her identity. However, no family or friends came forward and it was never discovered who the poor girl was.

During her time in the mortuary, a pathologist taken with the mysterious woman’s beauty asked an artist to take a cast of the body, so her face might be preserved forever. Her half-smile and peaceful closed eyes were captured perfectly by the skilled moulder. The beautiful face had a broad appeal, and before long replicas of the cast were appearing in workshops – and in high society homes in Paris and across Europe.

The artists’ muse

Some have called L’Inconnue “the drowned Mona Lisa”, with her sweet half-smile conveying enigmatic beauty. Others have argued that the young woman must have been alive when the cast was taken, as the face shows no signs of trauma, decomposition or a difficult end. Many have tried to explain the expression the Inconnue wears – suggesting her suicide brought her peace, or that she was brought to the river after she died, or that something brought a smile to her lips at the moment of death. The search for these answers has inspired novels, poems, dances, songs and even a movie.

The The Worshipper of the Image by Richard Le Gallienne was published around 1899, and it told the dark story of a man who fell in love with the cast of the Inconnue, causing his wife to take her own life and his daughter to lose hers. The mask is mentioned frequently in German literature from the early 20th century, and an abstract poem from Russia entitled “L’Inconnue de la Seine” draws comparisons with a Slavic myth. The American Ballet Theatre performed a dance based on the Inconnue’s tale in 1965, and the documentary Jane B. par Agnès V. uses the unknown victim’s story to make a point about fame and anonymity.

Resusci Annie

If the cast of the Inconnue looks familiar, that might be because her face inspired the resuscitation training dummies used in first aid classes around the world. ‘Resusci Annie’ was created in Norway by toymaker Asmund Laerdal, after his own son almost drowned and required resuscitation. The life-size torso and head model allows the user to practise Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR), and the dummies have been used in first aid classes for decades. The face of Annie is inspired by the mask of the Inconnue, which Laerdal’s grandparents had hanging on the wall of their home.

 

It is not clear who the Inconnue really was, or if she even existed. However, her legacy has endured for centuries. Along with the artworks her story inspired, this unknown girl became “the most kissed face in the world” when it was used to mould the modern CPR dummy.

Lead image: L’Inconnue de la Seine cast, via Wikipedia.org

Resusci Annie picture by Phil Parker, via Wikipedia.org

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