Nobody knows the identity of L’Inconnue de la Seine, the girl was dragged lifeless from the Seine river of Paris. But for more than 100 years, her face has moved people to adoration… and, destruction.
The young student knelt before the palid face of the girl hanging like a white flower on his study wall. From the moment he had brought the bust into his university rooms, it had exerted a strong and baleful influence upon him. Now he kissed the cold and delicately molded lips, fixed his frightened eyes on her shuttered gaze, pressed a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger.
His life was over almost before it had begun, and L’Inconnue de la Seine, the Death Goddess of the Seine, had claimed another lover; another victim.
The story of L’Inconnue de la Seine, whose strangely serene features have drawn so many to suicide, is part fact, part legend, half mystery, half reality.
A hundred years ago, there stood on the Ile de la Cité, just beyond the great Cathedral of Notre Dame in the center of Paris, a grim, gray, stone building — the old Paris Morgue.
It was, incredibly, in a more barbaric age, rated as one of the sights of the city. Admission was free, and here gruesome curiosity could be sated with the spectacle of anything between 150 and 200 corpses almost lovingly exhibited on slabs of ice.
The purpose of this horrid preservation was to aid in the identification of the bodies of unknowns — les inconnus: to help authorities to keep the books straight.
It was to this vast, refrdgerated storehouse of unnatural death that they brought the body of the young girl, L’Inconnue de la Seine — The Unknown of the Seine. That is the name by which we must call her, for no one knows, nor seemingly ever knew, her actual name. Her lifeless body had been dragged from the river Seine.
We do not know the date of her discovery, but the style of her hair suggests that she lived in the 1870s or 1880s.
The Unknown Woman
For three months she lay in this dreadful place but no one came forward to claim her. Nor was anything discovered about her, except for her height, weight, color of eyes, color of hair and her estimated age — some have estimated her to have been as young as just 16 years of age, others have estimated her age to be of a woman in age of around 25 years.
She had given herself to the river, but the river rejected her in death, even as, one may speculate, the city had rejected her in life. Her name unknown, they entered her upon the register simply as L’Inconnue — The Unknown One. Once her statutory three months of preservation was up, she would be buried in a pauper’s grave, in Père Lachaise Cemetery.
However, during those last months chance drove an art student from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, sketch-block in hand, into the old Paris morgue, much frequented at that time by artists seeking anatomical subjects for their pencils. He saw the unknown ice maiden, and was so struck by the haunting loveliness of that delicate, oval face that, having sketched it, he asked permission to cast a death mask.
A few weeks later that pathetic creature was laid in her nameless grace, but now innumerable copies of the mask were made. Artists sketched it, photographs were taken and suddenly L’Inconnue de la Seine was famous.
With neither the virtues of a saint, nor yet the picturesque vices of a sinner in the grand manner, L’Inconnue de la Seine became something infinitely more subtle; infinitely more dangerous. For, in her calmly closed eyes, in the strange little semi-smile that played about her lips — in reality no more than a postmortem trick of relaxing muscle, such as smooths the features of the elderly dead, making them look again as they once did long, long ago — impressionable youth read an invitation to death. “Come with me,” she seemed to say. “Come with me into the quiet water-world. Death is not so terrible. See how peacefully I smile in his company? Suicide is the answer, then there is only peace.”
About this beckoning image there grew a mysterious cult, which reached its peak in the irresponsible 1920s. In France, Germany and many other countries, young people killed themselves without rhyme nor reason in front of plaster copies, or photographs, of the ice Maiden, L’Innconue de la Seine’s death mask.
What, one wonders, was the personal tragedy of L’Inconnue de la Seine? In the absence of indisputable facts, writers have created a world of mythology around her.
In 1899, the fin-de-siècle poet, Richard La Gallienne, wrote an entire book about her — a tragic fairy tale called ‘The Worshiper of the Image.” He dedicated his book to L’Inconnue de la Seine. “There is always poison on the lips of Art,” he wrote.
A Sphinx-like Face – The Unknown Beauty
Fifty-two years later, another writer, William Woods, also made L’Inconnue de la Seine the subject of a novel, ‘The Mask.’ He weaves a strange tale around the sphinx-like face of L’Inconnue de la Seine, the unknown beauty of death. He names her Valerie, and she is first shown as a young revolutionary in czarist Russia. The complexities of the story he devises for her gradually unwind themselves to the final, stark simplicity of an early, self-selected death in France.
All fiction, of course, Yet, there are clues to L’Inconnue de la Seine’s background in her face — the rounded, youthful chin, the plump country cheeks, the smudged delicacy of sound peasant stock. Had one not glimpsed its like at some market stall of a little country town, or perhaps behind the counter of some small, dark shop along a cobbled street? And the hair, straw-colored, one fancies, neatly arranged in careful, but not elaborate, loops. Does it not, too, suggest a country girl?
May it not be that she fled in disguise from the unbearable disapproval of a narrow-minded family and neighbors, and sought anonymity and a cloak for shame in the big city of Paris?
Once can imagine her dilemma as her tiny pocket of money dwindled, her modest clothing grew crumpled, her sunny hair lank and drooping. She dared not go home. If just one person had supported her in genuine friendship she might have lived on.
At last, worn beyond caring, did she slip quietly from a black and greasy wharf into the tide of the Seine, her fingertips gently releasing her last hold on life?
Again, nobody really knows.
But for more than a century — by a trick of chance — her head has hung in the studios, the garrets and attics of the bohemias of the earth. Artists have been her innocent lovers. She is of the world of Du Maurier’s Trilby and Little Billee, and as long as there are Rudolfs and Marcels, Mimis and Musettes, her memory is in safe-keeping.