Joseph Ducreux probably trained with his father, a painter in Nancy, before going to Paris in 1760, where he was the only student of pastelist Maurice-Quentin de La Tour. Like his successful mentor, Ducreux specialized in portraiture and made many self-portraits. He was also influenced by Jean-Baptiste Greuze's oil technique. In 1769 Ducreux was sent to Vienna to paint a miniature of Louis XVI's future wife, Marie-Antoinette. An instant success, he was made a baron and premier peintre de la reine (First Painter to the Queen).
In the late 1780s, the irascible Ducreux painted "character" self-portraits, using his own face to study various expressions, then a popular field for artistic exploration. While in London avoiding the French Revolution, he engraved and published three of these expressive self-portraits and drew the last portrait ever made of Louis XVI. In 1793 Ducreux returned to Paris, where he became associated with Jacques-Louis David, who helped him continue an official career. Ducreux's rooms became a popular meeting place for artists and musicians, who often commissioned portraits from him; his friend composer Etienne Nicolas Méhul based the main character of an opera on him. Ducreux rarely signed his paintings, and many remain wrongly attributed to other artists.