It All Started with the Mask

For several years, I ran an Etsy shop where I made objects with photos of the mask L’Inconnue de la Seine.

I came across the mask on eBay in Germany, back when eBay was still a place of discovery, not cheap knockoffs like it is today.  A thumbnail showed the mask of  sleeping woman’s face and was filed under the name Goebel FX/20. 

When I clicked on the link it said this was Die Unbekannte Tote aus der Seine, The Unknown Woman of the Seine, the death mask of a woman who had committed suicide by throwing herself into the Seine river at the turn of the 20th century. Creepy, yes, but also very intriguing. I bid on the mask and won.

When it came in the mail I was immediately moved by how beautiful she was.  The bisque porcelain was so cool and smooth to the touch and had been stained so skillfully, gray in some places, black in others with a subtle ochre tint around the nose and the mouth. 

But I didn’t really want to keep her.  Something was so powerful about her image that I didn’t think I even had a room big enough to hold her.  I stored her in my wardrobe and still could feel her all over the apartment.

I took pictures of the mask on the window sill of my apartment and in the court yard behind my house in the snow then placed it for sale in the vintage housewares shop I was running at the time. 

A collector contacted me after a few weeks which led me on a wild goose case around the internet, finding out more about the mask and the story behind it.  I found out more about the Goebel Hummel company than I ever thought I would know.  In the end, the woman did buy it.  L’Inconnue de la Seine found a new home in Indiana, of all places.

Was it a coincidence that I took the photographs at high resolution?  I didn’t really know how to operate my camera yet at the time and didn’t turn the photographs into smaller files like I did later. If I had, I would never have been able to print them later.

Who was L’Inconnue de la Seine? According to legend, she was a young country girl who committed suicide by throwing herself into the Seine in Paris. She was fished out the river and brought to the morgue where a young doctor, moved by her quiet beauty and enigmatic smile, made a death mask of her face. Some say he was driven mad by love for her and later threw himself into the Seine to finally meet her in its watery embrace.

Others say the story is pure myth. L’Inconnue de la Seine was made from the living face of a German mask maker’s teenage daughter and he grew rich selling copies of the mask which hung on the walls of every true and wanna-be European artist and poet at the beginning of the 20th century. No one knows for sure. What is known is that this mask has inspired generations of artists and writers from Rilke to Nabokov to Camus to Man Ray.

The text above was what I wrote on all of the pieces I made with the haunting mask in my shop (now closed). Sometimes I would get messages from people who told me the mask had moved them. They didn’t buy anything, but they wanted me to know. After all this time, the mask still has power.

I wrote a short story involving the mask called L’Inconnue; it hasn’t been published yet, but it’s received positive feedback, so we’ll see. I plan to expand it into a novel someday and join the ranks of those for whom the Unknown Woman of the Seine was a muse and inspiration.

Stayed tuned, dear Phantom Reader, stay tuned.