This dead woman’s story and her impact in the art world will shock you.
The art world is so weird and intriguing. It can find inspiration in the most unexpected things. We will never fully understand why someone feels attracted to something in order to create. What draws our attention? What inspires us? Well, almost about everything. Anything can be inspiring to an artist. Take Andy Warhol, for example. He painted a Campbell’s soup can that became a symbol of contemporary art: it turns out that this meal was his favorite when he was a kid! That’s why the art world will never die. There will always be something to inspire us.
Well, that's nice, but since anything can inspire anyone to create, sometimes inspiration can be pretty gloomy. How gloomy? A dead body seems gloomy enough? Yes, you read right. The corpse of a French lady became inspiration for real art.
In the 19th century, a young woman drowned in the Seine in Paris, and her body was found shortly afterwards. At that time, corpses were taken to display at a mortuary, in case they could be identified by a friend or family, but apparently nobody knew her. Since there were no signs of violence on her, pathologists concluded that she'd killed herself. But that’s not why this corpse drew the scientists attention. There was something about her face that caught their eye... Her expression was so peaceful and mysterious, it seemed impossible she had been killed or committed suicide. And this was just the beginning.
Captivated by the dead woman's face, the pathologist in charge of her case commanded a moulder to make plaster cast of her face. Soon, more and more copies were made, and it became incredibly popular in the bohemian circles of Paris. The cast was on sale in the streets, and this constant exposure turned out to be oddly inspiring for many artists. After a while, the woman became known as L’Inconnue de la Seine ("the unknown woman of the Seine"). Her peaceful expression was even compared to the Mona Lisa's famous smile.
Many novelists, journalists, and poets wrote about her. One of them was Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote a poem about this gloomy lady:
“(...) Urging on this life’s denouement,
loving nothing upon this earth,
I keep staring at the white mask
of your lifeless face.
Strings, vibrating and endlessly dying,
with the voice of your beauty call.
Amidst pale crowds of drowned young maidens
you’re the palest and sweetest of all”.
But writers weren’t the only ones from the art world who felt inspired by the drowned woman. In the world of fine arts, L’Inconnue de la Seine was also a recurring muse.
Albert Rudomine was a French photographer best known for his nudes. In addition to his portraits and contributions as a photojournalist, he also photographed the dead woman. He named his work “La Vierge inconnue du canal de l’Ourcq” in 1927 because he wanted to make a reference to the Virgin Mary. And if you thought this couldn’t get any creepier, Willy Otto Zielke, a Polish photographer and filmmaker, put her in a fractured profile for a 1934 silver print.
It might surprise you, but The Unknown Woman of the Seine is still relevant these days. If by this point her face hasn’t rung any bells, it sure will now. The famous dead woman was the inspiration for the face we see on the CPR practice mannequins. For real, Resusci Anne, “the most kissed girl in the world”, is also her!
I’m sure this poor woman never imagined what her existence would mean to so many people around the world. It brings us back to where we started: art can be inspired by pretty much anything. Even a drowned person can turn into a work of art. Isn't it terrifyingly beautiful?
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