Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Unknown Woman

According to the legend, her body was pulled from the Seine river in Paris in the late 1800s. When they brought her to the public display at the morgue, no one could recognize her. There were no signs of violence or struggle, so they suspected suicide.

People called her "L’Inconnue de la Seine (or “the unknown woman of the Seine”).

Why did she look so serene? Her strange smile captivated everyone. Some compared her expression to the Mona Lisa. Some estimated that she was only 16 years old.

A pathologist at the morgue was so impressed by her beauty that he made a plaster mould of her face. Copies of the cast circulated around Paris, and soon became a decoration in artists' studios. In America she became known as "La Belle Italienne"  In Germany, girls modeled their looks after her.

An art student, Edouard Cucuel, described how it was the favorite cast decorating his roommate's wall. "It occupied the place of honor over his couch," he said, "where he could see it the first thing in the morning, when the dawn, stealing through the skylight, brought out those strange and subtle features which he swore inspired him from day to day."
Bohemian Paris of Today by Eduoard Cucuel


Cully said...

You forgot the best part of the story! She was used as the model for "Resusci Anne," the CPR practice dummy, so so became at once the most famous drowned woman in history and the most rescued woman in history.

James Gurney said...

Cully, yes, I love that part of the story. I mentioned it in the links at the end.

jeffkunze said...

I'm wondering how girls could model their looks after a cast of a woman's face. You can't see skin color or any kind of hair style. The "drown" look was really in?

Christoffer Gertz Bech said...

Now, that's a very fascinating story. She is also on a plate in Charles Bargue's drawing course. Some years ago I made a painting, based on that plate - but I didn't know the full story until now!

Unknown said...

me too! I have the Bargue drawing of this burned into my brain I'm sure for the rest of my life after staring at it for so many hours. But like Christoffer I never knew the story of this cast- thanks so much for the full story James!

Daroo said...

Susan Lyon used a copy of this cast in her downloadable portrait drawing video. The detail of the copy is a lot softer.

I recommend her video and the download technology was pretty easy -- Jim -- you might consider it for your future videos.

Thanks for this back story.

JonInFrance said...

Unrequited love?

Michael Prescott said...

If only she had known!

Diana Moses Botkin said...

It's an interesting tale, whichever version might be true. Her young features do seem typically German.

Perhaps she simply was asleep, dreaming of something very pleasant, and fell into the water. But I don't suppose she would stay asleep underwater unless she was drugged.

Or, if the suicide version is the correct story, maybe she is a modern Ophelia.

Andrea Felice said...

For those who enjoy this fascinating story also read this post:

Juha Peuhkuri said...

I had never heard about this before. What a fascinating post! Thanks!