Facebook Instagram

Main page > Stories > A disquieting smile

A disquieting smile

Published at 2021-02-16

Unsettling or beautiful? Much speculation and mixed opinion has followed L'Inconnue de la Seine (The Unknown Woman of The Siene).

According to popular legend, a young woman’s body was pulled from the Siene at the Quai du Louvre in Paris in the final years of the 1890’s.

Something which, tragically, was not in itself a rare occurrence, given the plight of the then numerous sex workers in Paris. Bodies were seen in the water often, perhaps almost daily. They often showed no significant injuries, so suicide was typically ruled as the cause of death.

So numerous and anonymous were these sad discoveries that they garnered little attention or sympathy from the public. In short, they were a class of society that was not acknowledged and not considered worth protecting.

This was, at first, seemingly the case here too. Another body which bore no sign of violence or struggle, so she like so many before her was ruled a suicide. Seemingly just the latest in an ever-growing tally of unclaimed young women that had met with such sad and untimely ends…yet she was different.

Rudomine Albert Rudomine (1892-1975) L'inconnue de la Seine

The disquieting aspect to the girl’s appearance was her beauty, most of all her facial expression…her smile.

One would expect the victim of drowning to wear the desperation and suffering of their final act on their face, a final message to a world that had forsaken her. Yet here, her face was one of gently smiling serenity, a calm, blissful contentment.

The juxtaposition of this compared to her untimely death and seemingly determined suicide asked morbid questions regarding her life and the circumstances of her death, and wider societal questions regarding the struggles of her gender and class – why was such a young, beautiful woman, so at peace, so relieved to be meeting her premature end?

If the story is to be believed, an attending pathologist at the Paris morgue was so taken by her beauty and curious expression that he saw fit to take a wax death mask. She became a celebrity in death, her body reputed to have been displayed in the public morgues of Paris before the mask and following photography were widely sought after and circulated.

These subsequent photographs of the mask, soon after its rendering, become popular, albeit morbid features in the homes of the bohemian contingent of Parisian society. Comparisons were even drawn between the thought-provoking, puzzling smile of L'Inconnue de la Seine and that of the Mona Lisa, residing just metres away from where the young woman’s body was recovered.

Rudomine smile
Reinhold C. Muschler, One Unknown, London 1935.

Her ghostly calmness and questioning smile challenged a society that was, seemingly, forgetting these women and offering them no salvation.

Yet here, in death, she, from a class so invisible to high society, was suddenly being compared to arguably the greatest-loved portrait in the history of art. Her death and its circumstances continued to spark debate and societal dialogue many years following her discovery.

This photographic work by Albert Rudomine 1892-1975 is one of these photographic studies of the famously thought-provoking mask, omitting beauty, heart-rendering sympathy and social reflection.

Lot 73 Albert Rudomine (1892-1975) VIERGE INCONNUE, 1927.

This lot is offered in the Brno-based sale room and is currently online in a timed sale, ending at 7pm (GMT) on the 28th February, 2021.

Enquiries to include condition reports, viewing, sale registration and transport are welcomed. Please contact Antonín Zezula, via: aukce@papilio.cz

Last updated: 2021-02-17 14:42:13