Lagrenée was born in Paris. In 1755 he became a member of the Royal Academy, presenting as his diploma picture the Rape of Deianira (Louvre). He visited Saint Petersburg at the call of the empress Elizabeth, and on his return was named in 1781 director of the French Academy in Rome, a position he kept until 1787. He there painted the Indian Widow, one of his best-known works.
In 1804 Napoleon conferred on him the cross of the légion d'honneur, and on June 19, 1805 he died in the Louvre, of which he was honorary keeper.