“L’Inconnue de la Seine” was an unidentified young woman whose putative death mask became a popular fixture on the walls of artists’ homes after 1900. Her visage inspired numerous literary works. In the United States, the mask is also known as “La Belle Italienne”.
According to an often-repeated story, the body of the young woman was pulled out of the Seine River at the Quai du Louvre in Paris around the late 1880s. Since the body showed no signs of violence, suicide was suspected.
A pathologist at the Paris Morgue was, according to the story, so taken by her beauty that he had to make a wax plaster cast death mask of her face. It has been questioned whether the expression of the face could belong to a drowned person. 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. Claire Forestier 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 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 Al 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 such as Elisabeth Bergner modeled themselves on her. She was finally displaced as a paradigm by Greta Garbo.”