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. 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 a molder 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. The identity of the girl was never discovered and her age was estimated to be 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. #destroytheday