Vintage Celebrity Marriages: Lisa Fonssagrives + Irving Penn

This photo is of Lisa Fonssagrives with an unidentified man. The image was taken by Edgar de Evia at the Rhinelander Mansion in 1950, the year Lisa married Irving Penn. It is uncertain whether the man pictured is the model's husband, but it's possible. Photo © Edgar de Evia, available for use under the Creative Commons license. This photo of Lisa Fonssagrives with an unidentified man was taken by Edgar de Evia at the Rhinelander Mansion in 1950, the year Lisa married Irving Penn. It is uncertain whether the man pictured is the model's husband, but it is possible. Photo © Edgar de Evia, available for use under the Creative Commons license. by Angela Magnotti Andrews Love between artists can be fiery and tumultuous, but for retro-era model Lisa Fonssagrives and iconic photographer Irving Penn love seems to bear all the marks of compatibility, collaboration, and enduring commitment. While many may argue that being a fashion model is hardly an artistic endeavor, anyone who has read anything about Ms. Fonssagrives will think twice about believing such hogwash. Described by those at Vogue as "one of the most elegant women ever to wear a dress" {8}, the Swedish dancer-turned-model employed her keen knowledge of the intricacies of photography (gained from a previous marriage to dancer/photographer Fernand Fonssagrives) and her rigorous training as a dancer to infuse every one of her poses with electric energy and vivid dynamism. "I was a sculpture all my life," she said once, and Vogue agrees: "Fonssagrives turned her body into an exquisite sculpture" {8}. It is no wonder, then, that Irving Penn, a consummate photographer, who by 1948 was changing the face of modern photography, fell for the "exquisite blonde," whom he placed as his central figure, a white goddess among lesser goddesses in blacks and grays and whites, in the first photo he ever took of her--his '12 Beauties' portrait for Vogue, shot in 1947. Two years later, a reporter from Time Magazine sat in on another photo shoot, commanded by the great Irving Penn in a "dazzling bright room high above the late summer landscape of Manhattan's Central Park" {1}. The article begins with quotes from Irving Penn; however, the true focal point of the article was none other than the sculpted beauty, Ms. Fonssagrives. That year, her image graced the cover of the esteemed magazine, and in the write-up the reporter was among the first to elude to the burgeoning romance between two artistic equals--a photographer and his model/muse. "The ecstatic monologuist ..." grew "breathless with excitement" as he coached the Swedish artform into a pose which appeared "uncomfortable but though some preposterous comedy plot compelled her to be completely at ease while leaning against an exceedingly hot stove" {1}. One year later, Lisa and Irving would tie the knot in a ceremony eluding the public eye. An envy of today's uber-public celebrities, Lisa Fonssagrives and her lover enjoyed a lifetime of rare privacy longed for by today's trendsetters. For this reason, the only hint we have of what kind of passion they shared lies in their own fervent approach to artistry and their enduring affair while fully mixing business with pleasure for 42 years. Anyone who has worked alongside their spouse, let alone been at the direction of their spouse in their work, knows this must have required a tremendous amount of mutual respect, shared passion, and deep commitment to each other and to their art. They remained together until death parted them in 1992, when Lisa Fonssagrives died from pneumonia at age 80. Though she retired from modeling only two years after she and Irving were married, she went on to make a name for herself in clothing design and sculpting. Her clothes were featured in advertising campaigns (shot by her husband) for DeBeers and Plymouth, and her lingerie and loungewear were carried by Lord & Taylor {8}. Her sculptures went on exhibit in 1983 and 1986, in one-woman shows at New York's Marlborough Gallery {8}. In 1958, Irving Penn was named one of the World's Greatest Photographers by Popular Photography, and in 1985 he won the Hasselblad Award {7}, given to photographers "recognized for major achievements" {2}. He continued to sear Vogues pages with his breathtaking, minimalist craft until his death in 2009. Life Magazine, in 1960, wrote that Penn, in his attempt to "create a new kind of fashion picture," also managed to create "a new, austere style that influenced all modern photography" {5}. His work in platinum garnered him a show at MoMA in New York in 1975, and in 1980 a collection of his nude portraits were shown at the Marlborough Gallery in New York {7}. Before his retirement from Vogue, Irving Penn captured the portraits of Kate Moss and Nicole Kidman. In fact, his very last cover photo was of Nicole Kidman posing to promote her movie The Stepford Wives (2004). The year prior, Nicole Kidman had the privilege of sitting with "the industry's greatest photographers--Penn, Annie Leibovitz, Craig McDean, and Helmut Newton--for Vogue's September issue" {7}. After her session with Mr. Penn, the actress "collapsed into the corner of the elevator" and exclaimed, "You encounter a different realm" with Penn {7}. In July 2007, Anna Wintour dedicated that month's entire issue to Irving Penn, who turned 90 that month. Two years later, Ms. Wintour dedicated another issue to the legendary photographer. In the December 2009 issue, Ms. Wintour wrote, "He changed the way we saw the world, and, in particular, our perception of what is beautiful" {7}. His last assignment for Vogue appeared in the August issue, "a still life of dark-spotted bananas for a story on the signs of aging" {7}. That October, the passionate artist passed away at the ripe old age of 92. I wonder if his camera sat on a bedside table next to his only other true love, Lisa Fonssagrives.


  1. "Advertising: Billion-Dollar Baby," Time Magazine, September 19, 1949.
  2. Hasselblad Foundation. "The Hasselblad Award." Accessed April 12, 2014.
  3. "Times Topics: Irving Penn," The New York Times, last updated October 7, 2009.
  4. Marter, Joan M., ed. "The Grove Encyclopedia of American Art," Volume 1, p. 58.
  5. "Penn's People," Life Magazine, November 14, 1960.
  6. Saroyan, Aram. Door to the River: Essays and Reviews from the 1960s Into the Digital Age, Boston: 2010.
  7. Voguepedia. "Irving Penn." Accessed April 12, 2014.
  8. Voguepedia. "Lisa Fonssagrives." Accessed April 12, 2014.
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