Born In: Hammelev, Denmark
Gerda Wegener was a Danish illustrator and painter who was the partner of transgender woman Lili Elbe, one of the first recipients of sex reassignment surgery. Her paintings, often featuring Elbe, pushed the boundaries of gender and love of her time and were classified as lesbian erotica for often depicting women engaged in sexual activities. She also did advertisements and fashion illustrations for magazines like Fantasio, Vogue, and La Vie Parisienne throughout her career and made political anti-German images in the Le Matin and the La Baïonnette during World War II. Her paintings, usually in Art Nouveau or Art Deco style, challenged the male gaze with stylized, long-limbed, made-up figures in which women looked active rather than passive. Her erotic works, including graphic illustrations for the memoirs of Casanova, were celebrated throughout liberal society, but were out of style in the 1930s as the simpler Functionalism became more popular. While she hosted her last exhibition in 1939, a special exhibition of her artwork was held in 2015 following the success of the film The Danish Girl.
Also Known As: Gerda Marie Frederikke Gottlieb
Died At Age: 54
Spouse/Ex-: Fernando Porta (m. 1931–1936), Lili Elbe (m. 1904–1930)
mother: Emil Gottlieb
Born Country: Denmark
place of death: Frederiksberg, Denmark
Notable Alumni: Royal Danish Academy Of Fine Arts
education: Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts
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Gerda Wegener was born as Gerda Marie Frederikke Gottlieb on March 15, 1886 in the coastal town of Grenaa, rural Jutland to Justine and Emil Gottlieb, a vicar of Huguenot ancestry in the Lutheran church. She had three siblings, but was the only child to survive till adulthood.
She enjoyed art from an early age and was able to persuade her conservative parents to let her leave home at the age of 17 and move to Copenhagen. There, she pursued her education at the newly opened women’s college of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.
She met and fell in love with fellow artist Einar Wegener at art school, and they got married in 1904, when she was 18 and he was 22. They travelled through Italy and France, and eventually settled in Paris and became immersed in the Bohemian lifestyle of the time.
Gerda Wegener’s artwork was initially shown in the Charlottenborg Art Gallery, the official exhibition gallery of the Royal Danish Academy of Art, in 1904, but failed to draw attention. She started to gain popularity after winning a drawing contest in Politiken, a Danish newspaper, in 1907.
While she didn’t aspire to pursue this branch of art, this recognition propelled her into the fashion magazine industry and helped her become a leading illustrator of women’s high fashion in the Art Deco style. She quickly became known for her illustrations created for advertisements and was also a portrait painter.
She further gained notoriety after one of her 1906 works, Portrait of Ellen von Kohl, was rejected from exhibitions by both the Charlottenborg Exhibition and Den Frie Udstilling in 1907. The piece raised concerns of Italian Renaissance plagiarism and saw a storm of contributions to Politiken both for and against the art style, with opponents being called “the Peasant Painters”.
She herself never got involved in the controversy, but organized her own exhibition of the picture at the Winkel and Magnussen's art dealership, boosting her career. She won two more sketching competitions in the Politiken newspaper, capturing "Copenhangen Women" and then "The figures of the Street”, in 1908-09.
Back in 1904, when one of her models, Anna Larssen, was late for a sitting, she had asked her husband to pose instead in female clothing, which he did adopting the alter ego of “Lili”. Lili soon became one of Gerda’s favorite models and was the subject of her paintings of beautiful women with haunting almond-shaped eyes dressed in chic fashions, while her husband gradually began adopting the female persona.
When it became publicly known that her husband inspired her depictions of petite femmes fatales, it shocked the art world and the scandal was too much for the town of Copenhagen. In 1912, the couple decided to move to Paris, a city whose avant-garde tastes catered more to their lifestyle.
They adopted a lesbian lifestyle, which was reflected in her more daring and provocative paintings as she drew women engaged in sexual activities and seductive positions. She also continued to paint pictures of Lili, sometimes alone, but often with herself, and she threw wild parties at the expensive art salons of Paris to celebrate her growing fame.
She gained more recognition in the fashion industry as she illustrated for magazines such as Fantasio, Vogue, and La Vie Parisienne, mostly for beauty advertisements. Her works were published in the elite Journal des Dames et des Modes, which was reserved for people like artists and intellectuals.
Her risqué illustrations, considered "lesbian erotica", had a strong Art Deco style, and were published in underground avant-garde art books and displayed in highly controversial exhibitions, often causing public outcry. However, she enjoyed notorious popularity and thrived in the growing controversy surrounding her and Lili, whom she had introduced as Einar Wegener's cousin.
She won two gold medals and a bronze medal at the 1925 World Fair in Paris and her artwork was exhibited in the Salon des Humoristes, the Salon des Indépendants, and the Salon d’Automne. She made a series of paintings on her good friend, Danish ballerina Ulla Poulsen, and the couple was also friends with fellow Danish artist Rudolph Tegner and his wife Elna.
Gerda Wegener supported her husband as Lili became more and more an integral part of Einar’s self-identification, prompting him to seek out opportunities for a surgical transition. However, their marriage was annulled by Christian X, the King of Denmark, before gender reassignment surgery could take place because same-sex partnerships were not legal in Denmark.
The couple parted ways legally in 1930, but she funded much of her husband’s surgeries at Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science in Berlin, Germany, following which he legally adopted the surname “Elbe”. After they went separate ways, she married Major Fernando Porta, an Italian officer, aviator, and diplomat who lived in Morocco, and moved there.
She often sent flowers to Elbe on a regular basis to show her support as the latter was recovering from the surgeries. However, she was unaware that Elbe had undergone a fifth surgery, believed to have been an attempt to create a working uterus, which ultimately led to her death in 1931.
She divorced her second husband for unknown reasons in 1936 and returned to Denmark in 1938, following which she lived alone in obscurity, began drinking heavily and sustained herself by selling hand-painted postcards. She had no children and died on July 28, 1940, in Frederiksberg, Denmark, after which a small obituary was published and her estate was auctioned.
Her life with Elbe was later immortalized in the book Man Into Woman, edited by their friend Niels Hoyer and published in 1933, and the fictionalized novel The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff in 2000. The Danish Girl was adapted into a 2015 film starring Eddie Redmayne as Elbe and Alicia Vikander as Wegener, although both the novel and the film have been criticized for omitting an obscuring certain facts.
The success of the 2015 film resulted in a renewed interest in Gerda Wegener’s art, which was shown in a special exhibition at the Arken Museum of Modern Art until January 2017.
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