Born in Hammelev, Denmark in 1886, Gerda grew up in Hobro and moved to Copenhagen as a teenager to pursue her artistic interests at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. She worked as a successful fashion illustrator for magazines such as Vogue and also painted erotic imagery of women. She married fellow artist Einar Wegener, who became Lili Elbe, one of the first-ever documented recipients of sex reassignment surgery.
Early Life, Marriage, and Career
Gerda Marie Fredrikke Gottlieb was born on March 15, 1886 in the tiny rural province of Hammelev, Denmark, and grew up in the slightly larger city of Hobro. Gottlieb's small town life as the daughter of a clergyman and her artistic inclinations left her craving more. She left home at the age of 17 to enroll at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. There she met and fell in love with fellow artist Einar Wegener (later Lili Elbe). Gottlieb and Wegener were soon married at the ages of 19 and 22, respectively, and Gottlieb's career began to take off.
In 1904, Gerda Wegener's work was featured in the Charlottenborg Art Gallery (the official exhibition gallery of the Royal Danish Academy of Art) and, in 1907, she won a sketching contest in the Danish newspaper Politiken. This recognition propelled her into the fashion magazine industry where she became a leading illustrator of women’s high fashion in the Art Deco style of the time.
Wegener’s fashion industry paintings featured beautiful women dressed in chic attire, one of the most popular of which was a captivating lady with a stylish short bob, full lips, and haunting almond-shaped brown eyes. What came as a surprise to most, however, was that this mysterious beauty was her husband, Einar, who posed as her fashion model while donning women’s clothing. It was through these experiences that her husband Einar came to realize his true gender identity and began living his life as a woman. He later adopted the name Lili Elbe and permanently transitioned his body from male to female as one of the first sex reassignment surgery recipients in the early 1930s. When the news broke that Wegener's paintings of high fashion women were in fact artistic representations of a man, the gender-bending scandal was too much for the small town of Copenhagen. Along with her spouse who was now living as Lili, the pair settled into a lesbian lifestyle in the more open-minded city of Paris in 1912.
With her new life as a lesbian in the avant-garde city of Paris, Wegener’s art became significantly more risqué. In addition to her fashion world portraiture that was featured in Vogue, La Vie Parisienne, as well as the elite Journal des Dames et des Modes, which was read by artists, intellectuals and high society, Wegener started painting nude women often in sexualized poses. Sometimes described as “lesbian erotica,” these sensual Art Deco style illustrations were published in art books (including one chronicling Casanova’s adventures.) Her erotic paintings were also shown in highly controversial exhibitions, which sometimes caused public outcry and even riots due to their sexual and lesbian themes.
Wegener thrived amidst the controversy and her newfound popularity. She threw wild parties at her expensive Paris studio and with her bold artistic repertoire, Wegener became a well-known artist in France and Denmark. However, her public success came at a price: after Christian X, the King of Denmark, became aware of her marriage to Lili Elbe, who had legally become a woman, the king declared their marriage null and void in 1930. The couple parted ways amicably.
After separating from Lili Elbe, Wegener married Major Fernando Porta, an Italian officer, aviator and diplomat, and moved with him to Morocco. However, the marriage was short-lived and the couple divorced in 1936.
Wegener reportedly often sent flowers to her former spouse Elbe during her recovery from the final sex reassignment surgery that ultimately led to her death in 1931. Wegener was deeply affected by Elbe's death. She returned to Denmark in 1939, where she struggled financially because her art had fallen out of fashion. Once a highly successful avant-garde artist, Gerda was now selling hand-painted Christmas cards for only one Danish krone apiece. Her last art exhibition during her lifetime was in Copenhagen in 1939. Wegener died alone soon after in 1940.
Wegener and Elbe's story continues to captivate on the page and on film. Man Into Woman, the story of Lili Elbe edited by Niels Hoyer, a friend of Wegener and Elbe, was published in 1933 and republished in the mid-1950s. In 2000, author David Ebershoff fictionalized Elbe's story in the novel The Danish Girl, which was adapted into a 2015 film, starring Eddie Redmayne as Lili Elbe and Alicia Vikander as Gerda Wegener. In November 2015, Wegener's art was exhibited at the Arken Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen.
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