Saturday, December 3, 2011


   When I was a child, a mysterious ceramic face hung on the wall of our house. 

 When asked about it I was told that it was a dead or sleeping girl.  From this launched all manner of childhood questions of which the illogical conclusion was that it must be my deceased grandmother.   It did not really seem odd to a five year old that one would want one's mother watching over one,  dead or alive! 

In fact, I found later that it was a copy of a death mask,  a memorial quite often made of famous people in centuries past.   There are death masks of Pope Innocent ,Voltaire, Napoleon, Beethoven, Lincoln to name a few.  These were cast from plaster or wax and were used as "objets d'art " or as artists models.   In fact copies of these masks are still found in many traditional art schools.  You may have drawn one.

But this copy was a mask of a girl who was never famous until after her death.  She is known simply as "L'inconnue de la Seine"  ( the unknown woman of the Seine.) and at one time, copies of her face were found in hundreds of bohemian homes across Europe and I daresay, in  America.

The story begins in the late 1880's when the body of "L'inconnue" was pulled from the Seine as a suspected suicide.  
Until 1909, the Parisian morgue, then located behind Notre Dame Cathedral displayed bodies for public view.  Thousands of visitors passed by the morgue daily to view the deceased, a popular if not morbid form of entertainment.

According to the story, an assistant at the morgue was attracted by the serene and graceful visage of the unknown girl and decided to have a cast made of her face.  He found it remarkable that the girl's face with it's beguiling Mona Lisa smile was unmarked and looked only as if she were peacefully asleep. 

Soon after, copies of this mask could be found mainly in French and German homes inspiring hairstyles, art and literature.... the unknown girl finding her way into the writings of Camus, Nabokov and Rilke and Anais Nin to name a few.

Nowadays the original story is a suspected fabrication.   According to science, drowned victims are never found in this undamaged state. 

So the mask was probably that of a live girl, some say the daughter of a famous mask-maker of the time from the Lorenzi family model-making firm.   A descendent who still works in the firm also believes that the girl was alive , not drowned when the cast was made as the features are all distinct and un-bloated.  She estimates the age of the girl as no older than 16 as the skin is of a fine texture. 

But the true identity of the girl has never been verified and so she is still the mysterious "inconnue".

An interesting side-line is that in 1960 the CPR dummy was created by the Austrian doctor Peter Safar.    The story is that when Safer was looking for a face that practitioners would not mind getting close to , he chose L'inconnue .  So perhaps it is true,  it is now the most kissed face in the world.


  1. what a fascinating story! She has a beautiful face. I love John Keats and remember seeing a picture of his death mask. He looked very serene and untouched by tb.

    Those things we grow up with!! I remember my grandmother's LR clock that had a crystal ball on top of it. Only as an adult, after my grandmother had left us, did I realize that the crystal ball was not part of the clock.
    Vicki Karen

  2. Mary, I soon as I saw The Face, I was back in 2nd grade. I remember it being stashed in an old trunk in the shed next to the trailer in Redlands.


  3. Oh, Dave. That is so great. Whatever became of it, in the end? It is the only one I ever saw in America.

  4. Karen Vicki: Don't we wish we had thought to ask questions about so many things before our parents and grandparents "departed". thanks for your comment.


  5. I disliked seeing that face. It gave me the creeps. I couldn't understand why Mother and Daddy had it at the time, but now In know...

  6. Martha, I still don't really know where they got it or whose idea it was or where it ended up. Do you?

    love, m