Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, a multi talent (part one)

24 Aug
Irving Penn with his wife, model Lisa Fonssagrives, 1951Irving Penn & Lisa Fonssagrives, 1951

Which photograph can open my story about Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn……? I mean, the’re so many amazing pictures of the woman widely credited as the first supermodel. I know, many are named or self-proclaimed “first supermodel”, but for me and many others Lisa is the one!

I chose a photograph of Lisa and the love of her life, Irving Penn. 


Short Biography

By Fernand Fonssagrives for L'Oreal shampoo - 1935-37Lisa photographed by first husband Fernand Fonssagrives for L’Oreal, 1935-37

Born Lisa Birgitta Bernstone (May 17, 1911), Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn spends her childhood in Uddevalla, Sweden. As a young girl she takes up painting, sculpting and dancing. At 17, her parents want her to take cooking lessons, but Lisa is determined to pursue dancing. Three years later, she moves to Berlin to take classes with choreographer MaryWigman, a pioneer of Expressionist dance (Mary Wigman was a pioneer of modern dance in the spirit of Martha Graham).  After finishing Wigman’s, she returns to Stockholm to open her own dance school.

In 1933, Lisa takes a train to Paris, after she is asked by renowned Swedish choreographer Astrid Malmbörg  to join her in Paris for an international competition. She falls in love with the city and decides to stay. Lisa meets fellow dancer Fernand Fonssagrives with whom she marries in 1935. Together they give private dance lessons in their apartment .

Fernand Fonssagrives’ nude photographs of Lisa




In the elevator of their apartment building, Lisa catches the eye of fashion photographer Willy Maywald, who asks her to model hats for him (Willy Maywald, a fashion photographer for the houses of Dior, Fath, Griffe, and Jacques Heim. He also worked for Harper’s Bazaar). Fernand takes the prints to French Vogue, where a test shoot is promptly set up with Horst P. Horst. Lisa arrives terrified, in a homemade brown wool suit and long, wild hair. “I had never seen a fashion magazine,” she will later recall. “I didn’t know what fashion was . . .,  had no idea of what to do with myself.” The next day, she visits the Louvre to study paintings of people posing in various forms of dress. 

Lisa begins modeling for Vogue and for her husband, who has taken up the camera following a back injury. In between the collections, the two roam Europe, photographing and selling nudes, sports, and nature shots to magazines all over.

Lisa Fonssagrives becomes the first recognisable model in Vogue.

A memorable Vogue cover

In this cover of Vogue magazine, Lisa poses in a blue and white bathing suit while sitting in a ‘V’ position, to spell out the word ‘Vogue.  The first, black & white picture is a study for the final one (third picture). 

Horst P. Horst photographed this for the June 1, 1940, issue.





Following a Swedish vacation, the Fonssagriveses are en route to New York when war is declared in Europe. They decide to emigrate to America. Fernand begins photographing for Town & Country; Lisa connects with exiled European photographers including Horst P. Horst and Erwin Blumenfeld. She also enlists with the John Robert Powers modeling agency, doing both editorial and commercial work.

Daughter Mia Fonssagrives is born in 1941. When Lisa returns to modeling, she reduces her workload to 20 hours a week. For a long time she won’t be photographed for Vogue.

12 beauties by Irving Penn

Irving Penn’s image of “12 Beauties: The Most Photographed Models in America” runs in Vogue in May 1947; it marks Lisa’s first appearance in the magazine since 1941 and it’s the first time she works with Irving Penn (who placed Lisa at the center of the composition, a delicate ice-carved swan). Recalling this glimpse of his future wife, Irving later says, “I loved her when I first set eyes on her.”  The attraction is mutual.

Lisa becomes the first model ever to grace the cover of Time in 1949. The “Billion-Dollar Baby” is the “highest-paid, highest-praised high-fashion model in the business, considered by many of her colleagues the greatest fashion model of all time.”


In Vogue April 1950, one of Irving’s most memorable portraits of Lisa is published, wearing a harlequin dress and portrait hat. A few months later she models the Paris couture for Irving in a top-floor, north-lit studio on Paris’s Rue de Vaugirard. These pictures will be published in Vogue following September.

After the couture shoot, the couple travels to London. By now Lisa’s marriage to Fernand Fonssagrives is over and she weds Irving Penn at the Chelsea Register Office.

In 1952, a son is born, Tom Penn and Lisa effectively retires from modeling, taking on the occasional job for old pals in the field. She also ends her own photography career, which started in 1947, taking pictures for Ladies’ Home Journal. Her apartment darkroom is changed into a nursery.


The 1950  Paris Couture series by Irving Penn

Balenciaga coatCristobal Balenciaga coat 
marcel rochas
Marcel Rochas dress
Dior, photographed by Irving Penn for Vogue in 1950
Christian Dior coat
balenciaga, 1950, penn
 Cristobal Balenciaga coat  
 Balenciaga Vogue, 1950
 Cristobal Balenciaga petal dress

Lisa’s vision on modelling 

“Making a beautiful picture is making art, isn’t it?” With a photographer’s eye, observing the way light hit the dress she was wearing as well as its drape. Then, with a discipline and dramatic flair learned from years of dance, she would stand in front of the camera and as she once put it, “concentrate my energy until I could sense it radiate into the lens.” She called it “still dancing.”

“There were no strobe lights in those days, but very hot spots, often live thousand watts on either side of you and the exposures were long. You could feel the sweat trickling down your face and the assistant would come over and hand you a towel. In fact I remember one time in New York in the ’50s when I was modeling fur coats in the summer. And there were no air conditioned studios then. It was so hot that I just fainted. And they propped me right back up and I went straight back to work.”


1950One of the first pictures after their mariage, Liusa Fonssagrives-Penn, photo by husband Irving Penn. A strapless cloud of tulle from Christian Dior’s landmark New Look collection.


info for this story: Wikipedia, VoguePedia & an intervieuw with David Seidner in Bomb magazine

Next week: Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn (Part two)

One Response to “Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, a multi talent (part one)”


  1. Miss Onion’s Exquisite Finds – No 57 – MISS ONION’S EXQUISITE FINDS - 17 September 2021

    […] herself as a clothes designer and then a sculptor in later life. Read more about her life here and here. There are so many iconic images of her by […]

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