At age eight Joseph-Benoît Suvée began studying at the Royal Academy of Bruges. After winning multiple first prizes, he left for Paris in 1763 and enrolled at the Académie Royale the following year. He won the Prix de Rome in 1771, triumphing over Jacques-Louis David, who complained that Suvée used connections, a charge that may have been true.
In Rome from 1772 to 1778, Suvée made chalk drawings of the countryside, combining Hubert Robert's taste for picturesque ruins with Giovanni Battista Piranesi's archaeological accuracy and monumental style. His work included official state commissions, tapestry cartoons for the Gobelins Tapestry Manufactory, religious paintings, and psychologically penetrating portraits. He often painted emotional scenes, which he treated with Neoclassical restraint, creating simple compositions, crisp and precise draperies, and idealized figures.
In 1801 Suvée became director of the Académie de France at Rome, which became his best-known legacy; the responsibilities of running the school caused him to abandon painting completely.