L'Inconnue de la Seine

L'Inconnue de la Seine (from French for the unknown woman of the Seine) was an unidentified young woman whose death mask became a popular fixture on the walls of artist homes after 1900. Her visage was the inspiration for numerous literary works in both French and other languages as well.

The legend of her suicide begins in 1900, when her body was pulled out of the Seine River in Paris. A worker at the Paris morgue was so taken by her beauty that he made a plaster cast of her face. In the following years, numerous copies were produced, and these copies quickly became a fashionable morbid fixture in Parisian Bohemian society. In similar fashion to the smile of Mona Lisa, there were numerous speculations on what clues the eerily happy expression in her face could offer about her life, her death, and her place in society.

The afterimages provided another interesting aspect to her popularity. 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 rivers and lakes, but the apparent preservation of these details in the visage of the cast seemed to only reinforce its authenticity.

Critic A. Alvarez writes in 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.