Lisa Fonssagrives moved to Paris from Sweden to train for the ballet, but began modeling instead. She described modeling as ‘still-dancing’, and became one of the highest paid models of her day and throughout her career. She was also the most praised high fashion model in the business. Today’s leading supermodels would envy Lisa Fonssagrives for the fact that she managed to have a true private life.
Born Lisa Anderson in Sweden, on May 17, 1911, the woman known as Lisa Fonssagrives went on to become arguably the world’s first supermodel. Very little is known about her upbringing in Sweden or about her life prior to becoming a model.
Lisa moved to Paris to become a ballerina. However shortly after her arrival to France in the 1930’s, she began modeling and became one of the highest paid models of the 1940’s and 1950’s. The Swedish beauty was the most sought after model of the 1930s and 1940. She worked with all the great fashion photographers: Horst P. Horst, Richard Avedon, Erwin Blumenfeld, Man Ray, Edgar de Evia, George Hoyningen-Huene, George Platt Lynes, Penn and Fonssagrives.
In Paris, she married the famed Parisian photographer, Fernand Fonssagrives in 1935. They had one a child together, the costumer designer Mia Fonssagrives-Solow. The Fonssagrives later divorced. Thereafter, she married another famous photographer, Irving Penn in 1950. She was popular with the photographers because not only did she know what to do, she also knew what not to do.
By the time of her marriage to Penn, Lisa was already a successful model and working with the best in the business. Penn called her his favorite subject and model. With her 17 inch waistline, Fonssagrives referred to herself as a “good clothes hanger”, a phrase that would be used time and time again to describe ideal models. She was one of the top models that embodied the visual ideals of Dior’s New Look.
She maintained her figure by eating in small quantities. A meal would include only a small wedge of cheese, a cracker, a little wine and six grapes for dessert. She was always eating and would eat up to ten times a day, but never in great amounts.
As the highest paid and the most sought after model in the world, Forssagrives, appeared on countless covers of Life, Harper’s Bazaar, Town & Country and the original Vanity Fair thorough out the 1930’s, 1940’s and the 1950’s, her face. Her more than 200 covers of Vogue remain unmatched by any of today’s modern supermodels.
Surrounded by art and inspiration, Fonssagrives continued her dancing. That granted her a “je ne sais quoi” and gave her access to a certain unattainable sense of elegance, of which she was the living embodiment and epitome.
Fonssagrives also became a fashion designer and photographer. She made a second name for herself as a very successful sculptor. The Marlborough Gallery in Manhattan represented her.
Lisa Fonssagrives died on February 4, 1992 at the age of 81. She left behind second husband Irving Penn, a daughter Mia Fonssagrives-Solow from her first marriage, and a wealthy body of work including her sculptures. Her legacy to the annals of fashion included some of the world’s most valuable and unforgettable images taken by the most famous fashion photographers. On October 15, 2004, a photo taken of her in 1950 by Irving Penn was sold at a Christie’s auction for $57, 360.