Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn – the original supermodel

While strolling through the newest fashion exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum on photographer Horst P. Horst there was one model that repeatedly caught my eye. I realised I had seen a picture of her earlier in the year at the V&A’s fashion photography exhibition (wrote a post about it as well!).


By Fernard Fonssagrives for L’Oreal shampoo, 1935-37

A strong, elegant blonde, a ‘good clothes hanger’ as she described herself, but also the first supermodel. Lisa Fonssagrives (born Lisa Birgitta Bernstone) was a Swedish-born artist and dancer who became one of the most important models from the 30s to the 50s gracing the covers of Vogue, Life, Vanity Fair.

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She travelled to Paris in 1933 for a dance competition, and even though she didn’t win she fell in love with the city and decided to stay. Bernstone studied art at the Sorbonne and got married to Fernard Fonssagrives, a Parisian photographer and dancer, and then to American photographer, Irving Pennin 1950. She moved to Paris to train as a ballerina and she would say that modelling was “still-dancing”.


By Irving Penn, 1951

Her elegance, grace and poise made her known as “a billion- dollar baby with a billion-dollar smile and a billion-dollar salesbook in her billion-dollar hand,” by Times magazine at the peak of her career in 1949.

After moving to Paris, Horst took some pictures of her that helped to start her modelling career and appeared in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. She said of her first test with Horst, “I was terrified. I knew nothing about fashion and had never even looked at a fashion magazine. I had no idea what was expected of me. I didn’t know what to do with my hands or how to pose. Horst was very kind to me but was nearly as inexperienced as I was.” She became one of Horst’s favourite models.

Soon after, Fonssagrives moved with first her husband to the States where she worked both as a model and photographer. It was said that her face was as recognisable as the Mona Lisa to three decades of magazine readers. When the other models were earning $10 to $25 an hour she was earning $40 and continued her career till her late 40s.


By Horst, 1939


Vogue cover, 1950

After meeting (and marrying) Irving Penn, they created a series of photographs of the Paris collections for Vogue, which for a long time were considered the best example of how studio photographs should look like; simple compositions against grey paper in a daylight studio.


Vogue cover by Horst P. Horst, 1940

In the 1960s she also proved how talented she was as an artist, while working as a sculptor in marble, bronze and fibreglass.

When she died in 1992, Alexander Liberman, the editorial director of Condé Nast Publications, said to the New York Times that the Penns represented “an extraordinary relationship between a photographer and a model…She was the inspiration and subject of some of Penn’s greatest photographs.”


Photos: The Red List

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