How a 140-year Old Girl Found Floating in the Seine Saves Thousands of Lives Every Year

L’Inconnue de la Seine was fished from the river near the Quai du Louvre in the 1880s. Today, she might just help you survive a heart attack.

My friend Tom is an intense guy.

He just celebrated his 70th birthday and he’s getting his doctorate in comparative literature at Georgia State. If I had half his energy I could single-handedly replace those embargoed oil shipments from Russia. And I wouldn’t even charge in rubles.

When I told Tom I’d be painting a mask for the annual Fort Collins Art Museum auction, he practically leapt through the phone. “I’ll commission a death mask from you!” he shouted, referring to subject of his doctoral thesis. It was clear that I didn’t have any choice in the matter. I’d found my Medici!

And here’s my Sistine Chapel: blank, and awaiting inspiration.

For their fundraiser auction, the art museum provides artists with an unadorned ceramic mask. My job is to let my imagination run wild.

Two years ago I heard the crack of the bat and circled the bases in my mind, and sent this mask into the lineup — plus other baseball cliches — just before opening day.

Last year I was feeling haunted by René Magritte — who isn’t? — and this ripoff of “The Son of Man” took shape:

This year wave three of the pandemic was upon us and Tom was on the phone.

Death would be my mask inspo.

My friend emailed a few death masks for art reference. I’m still having nightmares because of them. No way was I going to spend a couple months staring into unseeing eyeballs while a million of my fellow citizens succumbed to a killer virus.

So we negotiated our way to L’Inconnue de la Seine — a famous death mask from the late 1880s in Paris. The subject was said to have been a 16-year old girl who had committed suicide by leaping into the river.

As the story goes, the morgue worker who received the body noted her peaceful expression, saying “Her beauty was breathtaking, and showed few signs of distress at the time of passing. So bewitching that I knew beauty as such must be preserved.”He fashioned her death mask — then a common practice to help to identify unknown victims.

There was death-mask craze in those times, but this face was a little different. She had a beatific smile, not an anguished grimace. For her, death appears to have been a release, not a torment. Her body bore no obvious scars or trauma, so she was assumed a suicide. But at sixteen? Too sad to think of.

She remains unknown — that’s what l’inconnue means in French. She’s also famous.

Her mask was all the rage in Bohemian Paris, as artists and writers mounted the plaster cast on their walls and included her in their works. They compared her to the Mona Lisa, though her enigmatic smile was even harder to interpret. If she committed suicide, why the smile? Why the clear features? Why the peaceful air?

The answers were lost in the murky waters of the Seine, if in fact, that’s where she was actually found. Rival accounts state that she was a tuberculosis victim, or the daughter of a German painter. We just don’t know.

And who cares? Reality is way too real. It’s more satisfying to put the mind to work, imagining.

We know L’Inconnue today because, in the late 1950s, a Norwegian toy maker and two physicians collaborated to make Rescusci-Anne, the life-sized doll used in first-aid classes. Now she helps people practice the push-push-breathe routine of cardio-pulmonary resuscitation.

Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

See the resemblance?

Michael Jackson may have. In his song “Smooth Criminal,” the pop enigma repeated the refrain “Annie, are you OK?”, which is the same thing CPR practitioners ask of the mannequin who will never respond to their rescue breaths or chest compressions. She has been called the “most kissed” girl of all time, and with good reason: She has the potential to save thousands of lives every year, among the 400,000 people who will undergo cardiac arrest.

But only if you know how to perform CPR. That link will help you sign up for a class. I myself had lots of makeout sessions with Anne, in a Red Cross class I took in Chicago.

And now she’s come around again, beckoning. If I can’t be saved, she says, perhaps someone else can be.

The Fort Collins Art Museum is auctioning it off, and this lady’s already duking it out with Tom for the right to have L’Inconnue haunt the space over their fireplaces.

I’m just relieved to have her out of my art studio. I swear I saw her eyes flutter open a few times, as I leaned in close with my paintbrush.

She is immortal, after all.

The Road 2 Elsewhere is a reader-supported, twice-weekly jaunt into the sacred, profane, weird world of travel. It’s like a getaway for your mind. Care to join me?

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Road 2 Elsewhere by Peter Moore

Road 2 Elsewhere by Peter Moore

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