L'Inconnue de la Seine  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
death in art, death mask, death in literature, death in culture

L'Inconnue de la Seine (French for "the unknown woman of the Seine")[1] 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.


Artistic portrayals

L'Inconnue in English literature

The earliest mention can be found in Richard Le Gallienne's 1900 novella The Worshipper of the Image, in which an English poet falls in love with the mask, eventually leading to the death of his daughter and the suicide of his wife.

L'Inconnue in German literature

The protagonist of Rainer Maria Rilke's only novel, Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), reflects:

"The caster I visit every day has two masks hanging next to his door. The face of the young one who drowned, which someone copied in the morgue because it was beautiful, because it was still smiling, because its smile was so deceptive – as though it knew."
„Der Mouleur, an dem ich jeden Tag vorüberkomme, hat zwei Masken neben seiner Tür ausgehängt. Das Gesicht der jungen Ertränkten, das man in der Morgue abnahm, weil es schön war, weil es lächelte, weil es so täuschend lächelte, als es wüßte.“

In 1926 Ernst Benkard published Das letzte Antlitz, a book about 126 death masks, writing about our subject that she is "like a delicate butterfly to us, who, carefree and exhilarated, fluttered right into the lamp of life, scorching her fine wings." („uns jedoch ein zarter Schmetterling, der, sorglos beschwingt, an der Leuchte des Lebens seine feinen Flügel vor der Zeit verflattert und versengt hat.“)

Reinhold Conrad Muschler's 1934 widely translated best-selling novel Die Unbekannte tells the maudlin story of the fate of the provincial orphan Madeleine Lavin, who has fallen in love with the British diplomat Lord Thomas Vernon Bentick and, after a romance, commits suicide in the Seine when Bentick returns to his fiancée. This novel was turned into a film of the same name in 1936.

Other examples appear in:

  • Hertha Pauli's 1931 story L'Inconnue de la Seine, which first appeared in the Berliner Tageblatt
  • Ödön von Horváth's play based on his friend Hertha Pauli's story, written in 1934 and titled Die Unbekannte aus der Seine
  • Claire Goll's 1936 short story Die Unbekannte aus der Seine, in which the protagonist peers into a death mask and dies from a heart attack caused by delusion and guilt as he believes he recognizes the face as his daughter's.

L'Inconnue in Russian literature

Vladimir Nabokov's 1934 poem L'Inconnue de la Seine, written in Russian, was published in Poslednie Novosti in 1934. It has been argued that this poem has as much to do with the Russian myth of rusalka as with the mask itself.<ref>D. Barton Johnson (1992), "L'inconnue de la Seine" and Nabokov's Naiads, Comparative Literature, 44, 3, p. 225-248.</ref>

L'Inconnue in American literature

Chuck Palahniuk, in his novel Haunted, writes about L'Inconnue in the story "Exodus," though there, he calls her "Breather Betty."

L'Inconnue in French literature

Maurice Blanchot, who actually owned one of the masks, described her as „une adolescente aux yeux clos, mais vivante par un sourire si délié, si fortuné, [...] qu'on eût pu croire qu'elle s'était noyée dans un instant d'extrême bonheur“ ("a young girl with closed eyes, enlivened by a smile so relaxed and at ease... that one could have believed that she drowned in an instant of extreme happiness")

In 1931, Jules Supervielle once described the perspective of one dealing with the wearies of life as the "First-person narrative of the sense and the nonsense of suicide".

In Louis Aragon's 1944 novel Aurélien, L'Inconnue played a significant role as one of the main characters attempts to rejuvenate the mask from various photographs. At the beginning of the 1960s Man Ray contributed photographs to a new edition of the work.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "L'Inconnue de la Seine" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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