Women Artists

Gerda Wegener: Art Deco Feminist

Kelly Hill 28 August 2020 min Read

Today Gerda Wegener is best known for her lesbian and feminist art. She was also married to a trans woman, the landscape artist Lili Elbe. Their marriage was later dramatized in David Habershoff's 2000 book The Danish Girl and in the 2015 movie by the same name.

Gerda Wegener, Ulla Poulsen
Gerda Wegener, Ulla Poulsen, c. 1930, private collection. Artnet.

Illustrator for Vogue

Wegener was born Gerda Marie Fredrikke Gottlieb in the village of Hammelev, Denmark in 1886. As a teenager she attended the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. There she met, and later married fellow, artist Einar Wegener when she was 19 and he was 22. After graduating from art school, Wegener worked as an illustrator for various fashion magazines, including Vogue.

Gerda Wegener, Solitaire
Gerda Wegener, Solitaire, 1928, private collection. Artnet.

The Emergence of Lili

Wegener's art regularly featured elegant and high-class women in high fashion, often pictured enjoying their wealth. When one of Wegener's female models had to cancel at the last minute, her husband donned women's clothing and posed for her instead. He discovered he enjoyed dressing as a woman, later adopting the name Lili, and became one of her favorite models.

Gerda Wegener, Portrait of Lili Elbe with a fan
Gerda Wegener, Portrait of Lili Elbe with a fan, c. 1925, private collection. Artnet.
Gerda Wegener, The Aperitif, 1928
Gerda Wegener, The Aperitif, 1928, Patrick Derom Gallery, Brussels, Belgium. Artnet.
Gerda Wegener, Three Ladies - Teatime
Gerda Wegener, Three Ladies - Teatime, c. 1916-18, private collection. Artnet.

Lesbian Erotica

In 1912, the couple left conservative Copenhagen and moved to Paris where Einar began openly living as Lili Elbe. Wegener started taking risks with her own art as well, creating sexually explicit images of beautiful women.

Gerda Wegener, Two Women in a Window
Gerda Wegener, Two Women in a Window, c. 1920, private collection. Artnet.
Gerda Wegener, Cuckoo
Gerda Wegener, Cuckoo, c. 1920, private collection. Artnet.
Gerda Wegener, Butterfly
Gerda Wegener, Butterfly, 1920, private collection. Artnet.

Lili's Ground-Breaking Surgery

In the 1930s, Lili underwent sex reassignment surgery, one of the world's first documented cases of the procedure. After the surgery became public, the king of Denmark annulled Wegener and Lili's marriage. The two remained close until Lili's untimely death in 1931 during her fourth and final surgery.

Gerda Wegener, Portrait of Lili Elbe
Gerda Wegener, Portrait of Lili Elbe, 1920, private collection. Artnet.

Awards and Recognition

Although Wegener did win a few prizes in her lifetime (she won first prize in a 1908 competition whose theme was the "feminine ideal," for example) as well as two gold medals at the 1925 World Fair in Paris, at the time of her death in 1940 her work had largely fallen out of favor. Like many female artists who lived outside the boundaries of middle-class society, her work didn't receive the critical acclaim it justly deserved until several decades after her death. In 2016 the Arken Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen celebrated Wegener with the largest exhibition of her work to date.

Gerda Wegener, Three Women Under an Umbrella, c. 1920-29, private collection. Artnet.

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