Midcentury Supermodels – Lisa FonssagrivesJanuary 19, 2019
Lisa Fonssagrives was one of the top models of the Mid-Century. An elfin blonde of extreme slimness with killer cheekbones and a tip tilted nose, her extreme shyness translated as hauteur and her dance training made her poses exquisite.
She was another of the elite group of beauties whom fans claim with confidence as “The First Supermodel”. If she wasn’t the first, she was certainly a supermodel, if that definition is a stunningly photogenic high earner whose picture was everywhere. Time magazine described her, rather more picturesquely as “a billion-dollar baby with a billion-dollar smile and a billion-dollar sales book in her billion-dollar hand.” Fonssagrives was a war pin up and received sack loads of fan mail. Not that she particularly appreciated it due to her shyness.
She was married to the photographer Irving Penn who took hundreds of pictures of her; some of the best of his career according to contemporaries. It often seems the most entrancing pictures are taken by someone who loves you: look at Nickolas Muray and Frieda Kahlo, or Man Ray and Lee Miller.
However, even before she married the famous photographer, she was already extremely well known as a model herself and had a successful career as a dancer behind her.
Swedish Born Beauty
Lisa Birgitta Bernstone was born May 17, 1911 in Gothenberg or Uddevalla, Sweden. Sources vary as to her birthplace but she was definitely raised in Uddevalla. Her father was a dentist and painter, and he changed the family name from Andersson, which he felt was too common, to Bernstone. Her mother was creative and made clothes. She had two sisters and the family would spend their holidays driving through Europe to visit museums. According to Lisa, she always wondered what she could achieve in life to match the wonderful creativity her family exuded. As a child, she was equally talented at dancing, painting and sculpting, all of which her parents encouraged, and in her late teens she moved to Berlin to study both art and dance.
Returning to Sweden she opened her own dance school. She still took part in dance and international competitions, and in 1933, she went to Paris to take part in a contest, a ballet with a score by Gershwin. She won an honorary mention, and also fell in love with the city and decided to stay. She studied art at the Sorbonne and met the French dancer Fernand Fonssagrives, whom she married in 1935.
A Success in Paris
While in Paris in 1936, photographer Willy Maywald bumped into her in the lift of her apartment and suggested she model some hats for him. The resulting photographs were sent to Vogue and so approved of that the magazine arranged that in house photographer Horst P Horst take some test pictures. “On the day of my 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.”
But, however nervous she might have been, the pictures worked out well. She became Horst’s favourite model. This was when her modelling career really took off. She worked with all the greats: George Hoyningen-Huene, Man Ray, George Platt Lynes, Richard Avedon, and Edgar de Evia. For Erwin Blumenfeld she was photgraphed in a flowing Lucien Lelong dress holding onto a high up strut of the Eiffel Tower by one hand, and she trusted Horst so much that she did a series of graceful nudes with him.
And in New York
Lisa Fonssagrives featured in so many issues of Vogueand Harper’s Bazaarthat it was said that she was as recognisable as the Mona Lisa to three generations of American women. Like other models such as Barbara Goalen, her popularity paid off for her financially. Where most models were paid $10 to $25 an hour, she was earning $40 an hour and the commissions kept coming. She was reportedly “the highest paid, highest praised, high fashion model in the business”.
But she was modest about her success. Partly she attributed her skills in making and holding beautiful, graceful shapes with her body to her dance training. “Modelling is still dancing”, she said. But also “It is always the dress, it is never, never the girl. I’m just a good clothes hanger”.
As well as modelling she worked as a photographer herself.
At the outbreak of war in 1939, Fonssagrives moved to New York with her husband, later divorcing him but keeping his name. In 1947 she met Irving Penn, and in 1950 she married him. She was 39 now, an age when most models would have been retired for several years, but Lisa Fonssagrives was at the peak of her career. A series of photos of Fonssagrives by Penn from around this time, interior shots of the model in the Paris collections against a plain grey background became iconic and a touchstone for what fashion photography could and should be for many years.
In the 1950s she became a mother, having two children with Irving Penn. She had to stop photography as her darkroom became a nursery, but the creative impulse was still so strong she turned fashion design first just gowns for her husbands shoots and then a full line. She worked under her own label for six years and also created a collection of leisurewear for Lord and Taylor.
In the 1960s she focussed on sculpture. The move was natural for her: “making a beautiful picture is making art”, and “I was a sculptor all my life […] I was a form in space,” she explained. She worked in marble, bronze and the very new (and sometimes dangerous) medium of fibreglass. She was represented by the very distinguished Marborough Gallery in Manhattan.
Lisa Fonssagrives, a multitalented artist
Lisa Fonssagrives , dancer, model, photographer, fashion designer and sculptor died in 1992 in New York at the age of 80.