The Woman of the Seine.

My interest in this subject arose from an art challenge to paint the death mask of this unfortunate girl, named ‘The Unknown Woman of the Seine’ or  ‘L’Inconnue de la Seine’.  I was intrigued by the subject, as unrequited love and death often go hand in hand. The fact that she drowned in the dark murky waters of the Seine is even more daunting.  On a practical note,  it is possible the woman did not commit suicide as is the general thought, but fell into the river accidentally, however, as history dictates one must remember that she did live in a dark age, and a woman (unless high-born) did not have much opportunity if she was poor, uneducated, a servant, having an illicit affair, young and without guardians, pregnant out-of-wedlock – many reasons for a young girl to feel that life was without hope. The death mask adds romance to the tragic event – she lived a dismal life, but died and found peace and sweet contentment in her death as the beautiful smile on her face indicates.

I found several photos and paintings of her profile with that wonderful famous smile, preferring the front view of her face.  When viewing my painting remember that this is not a flesh and blood face, but just a mask of that face.  The marks seen in the mask in my painting, I imagine, to be the marks of the trade i.e., fingers or tools of the mask maker, and is not to be seen as macabre in any way.  I painted the waters of the Seine in the background as this is the only thing I can associate the dead girl with.


The Woman of the Seine was found at the dawn of a new century ( late 1880)  – a young girl, probably sixteen years of age; drowned and hauled from the Seine in the grim light of a chilly morning.

The custom for handling a corpse retrieved from the river, was to hastily construct a death mask before decay fouled the water.  The body was then placed in storage and the death mask kept on hand for viewing  – hopefully the body would be identified, however, if identification did not take place, the body would be buried in a pauper’s grave and the mask would be recycled for the next corpse. In this case, the worker at the morgue, found the face to be so beautiful, that he preserved the mask.

At least this young dead woman looked at peace – so few drowned corpses did. And the death mask that was hastily cast was hauntingly beautiful in its expression. The girl’s face had  a small, serene, almost enigmatic smile, as though she knew something that not even death could claim.  She was likened to a waxen Mona Lisa.

The mask maker, haunted by the features, took a journalist friend to the catacombs where the masks were kept – and so a legend was born. The tale was told thus: “Here was the face of an unknown girl who, for unknown reasons – perhaps a pain too great to bear, perhaps a cruel twist of fate – had been taken to the bosom of the great river to sleep her final sleep. Her remains were unclaimed, her identity unknown. In death, she was as sympathetic as she was mysterious”.

Like all good legends this young lady’s story appealed to many on the continent, as it would.  Replicas of the mask were made and remade, the girl’s story told and retold, novels and poetry were penned about the mystery of her life and death. It was said that her visage set the standard of beauty for a whole generation of young German women. Her story was romanticized and her mask graced the homes of the Bohemian set.  She was the feminine icon of the times.  On and on her legend rolled, until the Great War swept her aside in the tide of horror that it was.

And so for many years she rested – in neglected corners of attics and dusty junk shops, or discarded with the rubbish.  Not exactly forgotten, or remembered, as her mortal remains decomposed in the Potter’s field.

But her tale, as it turned out, was far from over, and although few, as time went on would be aware of her history, her immortality would be secured in a strangely ‘fitting’ way.

In 1958, Dr. Peter Safar, a pioneer in the field of cardiopulmonary resuscitation, was on a tour promoting his work. His challenge was that there was no simple way  to demonstrate his life-saving procedure; he used heavily anesthetized volunteers to perfect the method, but this was impractical, (to say the least!) for training others.

In the audience, Dr. Bjorn Lind, inspired by the technique, thought a manikin could solve Safar’s problem. His friend Asmund Laerdal, whose son, strangely enough had almost drowned the previous year, was a toy manufacturer, and happened to be experimenting with soft plastic. Lind thought that Laerdal’s knowledge might offer a solution.

Working together, the three men designed a life-sized manikin – Safar and Lind providing the anatomy, while Laerdal used his knowledge of plastics and doll making.  They created a prototype that was anatomically correct, and suitable for use as a dummy to which  pressure could be applied to the chest cavity.

While the manikin was functional, they felt it was unfinished – the head had no features other than a mouth. Believing that a realistic face would motivate students to learn the lifesaving procedure, they decided that the maniken needed facial features.

Here, the river girl must have smiled a little wider.  While Laerdal was visiting a relative, he came across a ceramic replica of L’Inconnue de la Seine, and on hearing her story decided to use her face on the incomplete manikin.

The CPR manikin went into production in 1960, and Laerdal’s factory never made another toy. Since that time, countless people have labored to ‘save a girl’ who was beyond help when she was first found, and in doing so, have learned to save those for whom there is still hope.

Perhaps, in her final moments before the waters of the Seine took her last breath, L’Inconnue de la Seine – the only title she was known by – knew her ‘future’ and smiled sweetly one last time.



What I found intriguing about this story, despite the tragedy, is the string of coincidences after her death.  This young woman’s ‘life’ did indeed  begin after her unfortunate death! 

Copyright © Caroline Street.   Art, Poetry and Photography. All rights reserved.

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