The beauty and serenity of her face
Do you know the legend of the unknown woman of the Seine, which inspired many romantic artists ? At the end of the 19th century, the body of a young woman was fished out of the Seine in Paris. The body is transported to the morgue, then located on the Ile de la Cité, in the hope that a loved one will come to recognize it. Observing no sign of violence, the pathologist concludes that it is certainly a suicide. An employee of the premises is captivated by the beauty and serenity of her face, and creates a death mask, that is to say, molded directly on her, in order to keep this smile so peaceful and mysterious as an eternal model. A moulder named Lorenzi, who occupies a workshop in the capital, then offers the death mask of the Unknown in his shop. In the 1920s, it sold like hotcakes ! Far from being macabre, it becomes a real decorative object and is found hanging on the walls of Parisian houses.
No one recognizes this face
But despite the popular success of masks, nothing helps. No one recognizes this face. The beauty of her smile and the mysteries surrounding her identity ensure her success. Even today, the Lorenzi workshop, which would be at the origin of the first molding of the Unknown of the Seine, receives nearly 300 requests for these masks per year ! A macabre craze which, at the time, was not shocking. Because at the turn of the century, death masks were still a common way to keep a memory of a loved one or a celebrity. And, in these times of development of popular entertainment, fascination for « curiosities » and taste for exploration, everything becomes spectacle… including death. So much so that the morgue located on Quai de l’Archevêché, a stone’s throw from Notre-Dame, is cited in tourist guides as a popular address for Parisians, who do not hesitate to go there during Sunday walks to shiver. in front of the corpses of anonymous people who, exposed behind large windows, are waiting to be identified !
A macabre craze
Since the end of the 19th century, the story of the Unknown has fascinated artists so much that some have developed a real obsession with it. The first mention of the drowned woman would have appeared in the novel L’Adorateur d’image written in 1898 by the Englishman Richard de Gallienne. The mask, which adorned one of the walls of his office, would have ended up having a « grip on the fragile spirit » of the poet. . In 1933, for unknown reasons, Louis-Ferdinand Céline used a photo of the drowned girl’s mask to illustrate the cover of his play L’église. A few years later, Louis Aragon also wanted to illustrate the reissue of his novel Aurélien with photos of the death mask and ordered around fifteen from photographer Man Ray. His hero, moreover, will recognize in the features of his lover Bérénice, those of the Unknown of the Seine.
The Unknown has kept all its mystery
Not far from 140 years after its appearance on the shelves of Parisian moulders, the Unknown has kept all its mystery and its identity gives rise to many theories. It would be for some of a woman who died of tuberculosis at the turn of the 1870s, for others of a woman named Valérie buried in Père-Lachaise. Others suspect the Unknown to be a young Englishwoman who would have married a Parisian tailor to vanish into thin air before reappearing under the guise of the mask, causing her twin sister to be amazed. One of the most popular tracks is that of Ewa Lazlo. This music-hall artist, of Hungarian origin, resembling the Unknown, died murdered by her lover Louis Argon. If we will probably never know to whom belonged the face of the Unknown of the Seine, there is no doubt that she will continue to arouse desire and fascination for a long time to come…