In the late nineteenth century, around 1880 the body of an unidentified young woman was pulled from the River Seine in Paris. The custom at the time with unknown bodies was to display them at the morgue so that friends or relatives of a missing person could visit and identify them. This body was no different from others, and was put on public display in the Paris Morgue in the hope that she would be recognised. However, one hundred years later, the young woman face is recreated tens of thousands of times each year by people from all over the world.
Her face was so mysteriously beautiful and the enigmatic smile so magnetic that her death mask became one of the most used funerary reproductions in the world. Even today, the shape of her face is used to reproduce the face in first aid mannequins, the puppets used by medical operators to practice and train students and other rescuers.
When the girl’s body was examined by a pathologist of the Paris morgue de l’Archevêché, not far from Notre Dame, the man was so fascinated by her face that he wanted to reproduce a plaster cast as a keepsake. However, it soon appeared that this pathologist was not the only person to be entranced by the beauty of this mysterious young woman. Numerous moulders had their workshops on the Left Bank area alongside the River Seine, and soon the same tranquil face appeared outside each one, marketed to the general public and tourists.
This face became a fashionable icon, with numerous sculptures and prints commissioned to decorate the homes, businesses and salons throughout Paris. She was a muse to local many artists, who entertained themselves with rampant speculation as to the true identity of this mysterious young woman and what could have led to her drowning in the river. So called “l’inconnue de la Seine”, French for “the unknown of the Seine”, the youthful face and inscrutable expression inspired writers and painters from across the world: German novelist Rainer Maria Rilke, French poet Louis Aragon, but also Americans like artist Man Ray and writer Vladimir Nabokov. No fashionable room was without a mask of the unknown woman.
In 1958 the cast of her face was used to make the first Resusci Anne, a medical manikin for teaching pulmonary resuscitation techniques. The manikin was reproduced in thousands of copies and sold throughout the world and, even if the modern design of manikins has changed a little and the current models have a design and a more neutral expression, the original face is still widely recognizable, and is known to some as the “most kissed face of all time”.
After these many years, the haunting face of the mysterious drowned girl in the Seine still endures in popular culture today as the Resusci Anne. Michael Jackson even refers to her in his song “Smooth Criminal” with the lyrics “Annie are you okay / Are you okay? / Are you okay Annie?”.
Sadly, young woman was never identified, and the causes of her death will remain unknown. Probably Tuberculosis or suicide, but her enigmatic smile makes us understand that, perhaps, the unknown woman knew what her destiny would be once she passed in the afterlife!
Images from Web.