The Drowned Muse: Casting The Unknown Woman of the Seine Across The Tides of Modernity

Anne-Gaelle Saliot

The book is a study of the extraordinary destiny of an object that could seem, at first glance, quite ordinary in the history of European culture. It tells the story of a mask, the cast of a young girl's face, entitled L'Inconnue de la Seine (The Unknown Woman of the Seine) and its subsequent metamorphoses as a cultural figure.

Legend has it that the Inconnue drowned herself in Paris at the end of the 19th century. The forensic scientist tending to her unidentified corpse at the Paris Morgue was supposedly so struck by her allure that he captured in plaster the contours of her face. The unknown girl has since become the object of an obsessive interest that started in the late 1890s, reached a peak in the 1930s, and continues to reverberate today.

Aby Warburg defines art history as "a ghost story for grown-ups" and this study, narrating the aura of a cultural object that crosses temporal, geographical, and linguistic frontiers, is just that. It views the Inconnue as a symptomatic expression of a modern world haunted by the earlier modernity of the 19th century. It investigates how the mask's metamorphoses reflect major shifts in the cultural history of the last two centuries and approaches the Inconnue as an entry point to understanding a phenomenon characteristic of 20th- and 21st-century modernity: the translatability of media. In doing so, the study mobilizes discourses surrounding the Inconnue, casting them as points of negotiation through which we may consider the modern age.