Lagrenée enjoyed a long and prestigious career in 18th-century France. He was born in Paris and studied under Carle van Loo (1705–1765). In 1749 Lagrenée won the Prix de Rome, which funded him to travel to Rome to study ancient and modern masters. The four years Lagrenée spent in Rome between 1750 and 1754 were highly influential; he was particularly drawn to artists of the 17th-century Bolognese school such as Guido Reni, and later earned the nickname ‘the French Albani’ due to the similarities between his work and that of Francesco Albani (1578–1660).
From 1760 to 1762 Lagrenée served as Director of the St Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts. Upon his return to France, Lagrenée exhibited frequently at the biennial Paris Salon, rising through the ranks of the Académie Royale. Between 1781 and 1787 he was Director of the Académie de France à Rome, and in 1804 he was appointed honorary curator at the Musée Napoléon (now Musée du Louvre).
Lagrenée’s elegant paintings of classical and mythological subjects won great praise from his contemporaries, and were highly prized by collectors. The great critic Denis Diderot, however, noted that Lagrenée’s talents were best suited to small-scale cabinet pictures: ‘The larger the canvas, the more his talent diminishes.’