The unknown woman of the Seine

The Drowned Mona Lisa

I heard a rather beautiful story this week and wanted to share it with you.

During the first decades of the 20th century, copies of a young woman’s death mask were widely sold in France and Germany and hung on the walls of many homes.  To this day, no one knows the name of the woman it was cast from.

It seems like a particularly odd phenomena, but an entire narrative has grown up over the mask.  Enchanting all with her peaceful smile, the mask was known as the Inconnue de la Seine, and inspired a remarkable number of stories and poems, particularly during the 1920s and 1930s.  Also know as the “Mona Lisa of the Seine” or “the drowned Mona Lisa” because of her peaceful, mysterious smile, the mask has grown a life of its own.

The story was that around the turn of the last century, the body of a young woman was recovered from the Seine.  A medical assistant at the morgue was so captivated by her smile  that he took an impression of her face, and the great numbers of plaster casts produced and sold came from this unknown young woman’s death mask. According to the story, the mysterious young woman was never identified.

No one knows why the mask was so sought after.  Perhaps because the woman was so beautiful, her smile so enchanting or the mystery of her tragic demise caught the imagination of the general public. Regardless, the striking mask of the drowned Mona Lisa captivated authors and poets alike, from Albert Camus to Maurice Blanchot to name but a few.

Even though the origins of the mask remain under dispute – there is even a case that the mask was taken from a living, breathing model – she still remains an enigmatic presence.  Even more surprisingly, some of you may have had a close encounter of your own with her if you have ever been on a first aid course, because our drowned Mona Lisa is the face of Resusci Anne,  the CPR doll.

Resci Anne

Regardless of the origins of the mask, was there ever a more eloquent and meaningful way for our drowned Mona Lisa to live on?



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