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Gerda Marie Fredrikke Gottlieb (15 March 1886 – 28 July 1940) was a Danish fine-artist, illustrator and painter best known for erotica. Her artwork largely contains images of fashionable women in the style of art nouveau and later art deco.

Gerda Wegener
Gerda Wegener.jpg
Wegener in 1904
Born Gerda Marie Fredrikke Gottlieb
(1886-03-15)15 March 1886
Hammelev (town of Haderslev), Denmark
Died 28 July 1940(1940-07-28) (aged 54)
Frederiksberg, Denmark
Occupation artist, illustrator, painter
Spouse(s) Einar Wegener (1904-1930; marriage annulled)
Fernando Porta (1931-1936; divorced)


Early lifeEdit

Gottlieb grew up in the provinces, in the village of Hammelev near the city of Grenaa, the daughter of Justine (née Østerberg) and Emil Gottlieb, a vicar in the Lutheran church. Her father had Huguenot ancestry and her family was conservative. She had three siblings but was the only child to live to adulthood. She showed artistic talent at a young age and began training. Her family moved to Hobro and later she moved to Copenhagen to pursue her education at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.


Her career as an artist began after graduating from the Academy in 1907 and 1908 when she won a drawing contest put on by the Politiken newspaper. She then was the center of a controversy called the Peasant Painter Dispute after one of her works, a portrait of Ellen von Kohl, was rejected for exhibitions due to the style of the piece.[1]

Gerda was inspired by fashion and sought work as an illustrator for Vogue, La Vie Parisienne and other magazines. She had become a well-known artist in Paris but was less successful in Denmark, where people found her work too controversial. She held exhibitions of her work at popular art studios around Europe. In 1925 she won a prize for her artwork in competition at the 1925 World Fair in Paris.[2] She was known for her illustrations created for advertisements and was also a sought-after portrait painter. She befriended Ulla Poulsen (1905-2001), a famous Danish ballerina, who became a frequent model for her paintings. Gerda and Lili were also close friends with artist Rudolph Tegner and his wife, Elna.

Lili ElbeEdit

Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener, c. 1928

She met fellow artist Einar Wegener (later Lili Elbe) (1882–1931) at art school.[3] They married in 1904, when Gerda was 18 and Einar was 22.[4] They traveled through Italy and France, eventually settling in Paris in 1912. The couple immersed themselves in the Bohemian lifestyle of the time, befriending many artists, dancers and other figures from the artistic world. The couple would often attend carnivals and other public festivals.

At the time, many considered Einar to be the more talented artist, but he toned down his own work and profile to help his wife in her artistic endeavors. Einar posed for Gerda in women's clothes one day, filling in for an absentee model. She asked him to wear stockings and heels so his legs could substitute for those of the model, and soon he adopted the persona of "Lili Elbe", after finding he felt surprisingly comfortable in the clothing.[5]

Lili became Gerda's favorite model, and over time, Gerda became famous for her paintings of beautiful women with haunting almond-shaped eyes dressed in chic fashions. In 1913, the art world was shocked when they learned that the model who had inspired Gerda's depictions of petite femmes fatales was in fact her husband Einar.[4]

Einar eventually identified as a male-to-female transgender woman. In 1930 she underwent the second publicly known sex reassignment surgery in history after years of living life solely as Lili Elbe. When out in public Gottlieb introduced Elbe as Einar Wegener's cousin when she was dressed in female attire.[6] Since they were no longer man and wife, the Wegeners' marriage was declared null and void in October 1930 by Christian X, the King of Denmark at that time. Lili died in 1931 from complications of surgery.

Later life and deathEdit

In 1931, Gerda, devastated by Lili's death, married the Italian officer, aviator and diplomat Major Fernando Porta, who was born in 1896 and ten years her junior, and moved with him to Morocco (specifically Marrakech and Casablanca). She continued to create art during this period, signing her paintings as 'Gerda Wegener Porta'. She divorced Porta in 1936 after a rocky marriage, with Porta swindling her funds, and returned to Denmark in 1938. She held her last exhibition in 1939, but by this time her artwork was out of style. She had no children and lived alone in relative obscurity and began to drink heavily. She kept an income by selling hand-painted postcards.

Gerda died on July 28, 1940, in Frederiksberg, Denmark. Just a few months prior to Gerda's death, following the onset of World War II, Nazi Germany invaded Denmark in April 1940 .[7] Her small estate was auctioned off and there was only a small obituary printed in the local paper. There has been debate about whether or not she was a lesbian. Some reports claim she married Einar Wegener because they were both homosexuals, and they knew in order to find work at that time they needed to keep this a secret.

Book and filmEdit

Over the years, the story of Lili and Gerda gained a cult following in Denmark and around the world. Their artwork has been rediscovered, and exhibited and auctioned with success. A special exhibition of Gerda Wegener's art is on display at the Arken Museum of Modern Art until January 2017, with plans for a traveling exhibit of her art to travel around the world.[8]

The Danish Girl, David Ebershoff's 2000 novel about Einar/Lili and Gerda, was an international bestseller and was translated into a dozen languages. Wegener is portrayed by Swedish Oscar awarded actress Alicia Vikander in the 2015 film The Danish Girl, also starring British actor Eddie Redmayne (awarded in 2015 for "best actor") as Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe. The film received some criticism for having been written similarly to forced feminization erotica, obscuring the actual story of a historical trans person and omitting certain facts[9] and for being based on a fictional book that does not tell the true story of Einar and Gerda Wegener.[10] The topic of Gerda's own sexuality, which many believe is demonstrated by the subjects of her erotic drawings, is not mentioned in the film or book.[11][12][13] In February 2016, Alicia Vikander won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Wegener.

Select works illustrated by WegenerEdit

  • Le Livre des Vikings by Charles Guyot (1920 or 1924)
  • Une Aventure d'Amour à Venise by Giacomo Casanova. Le Livre du Bibliophile. Georges Briffaut. Collection Le Livre du Bibliophile. Paris. 1927.
  • Les Contes by La Fontaine (1928–1929).
  • Contes de mon Père le Jars and Sur Talons rouges by Eric Allatini (1929)
  • Fortunio by Théophile Gautier (1934)
  • L'Anneau ou La Jeune Fille Imprudente by Louis de Robert
  • Amour Etrusque by J.-H. Rosny aîné
  • L'Abdication de Ris-Orangis by Léo Larguier (1918)


  1. ^ ARKEN Museum of Modern Art. "Catalogue extract (UK): GERDA WEGENER". Issuu. 
  2. ^ Biography accessed 12-15-2015
  3. ^ "Conway's Vintage Treasures". Retrieved 8 April 2014. 
  4. ^ a b She and She: The Marriage of Gerda and Einar Wegener. The Copenhagen Post. 3 July 2000
  5. ^ The Arts and Transgender.
  6. ^ Lili Elbe. 17 May 2003
  7. ^ She and She accessed 12-15-2015
  8. ^ Gerda at Arken accessed 12/15-2015
  9. ^ ""The Danish Girl" Stretches Frilly Forced-Femme Fantasy Over Actual Trans History". HARLOT Magazine. 2015-11-23. Retrieved 2015-11-25. 
  10. ^ "The tragic true story behind The Danish Girl". The Telegraph. December 8, 2015. Retrieved December 10, 2015. 
  11. ^ "The Incredibly True Adventures of Gerda Wegener and Lili Elbe". August 3, 2012. Retrieved December 10, 2015. 
  12. ^ "Reading Group Notes The Danish Girl". Retrieved December 10, 2015. 
  13. ^ "The Danish Girl vs the True Story of Lili Elbe, Gerda Wegener". Retrieved December 10, 2015. 


  • Man into woman: an authentic record of a change of sex / Lili Elbe ; edited by Niels Hoyer [i.e. E. Harthern] ; translated from the German by H.J. Stenning ; introd. by Norman Haire. - London, Jarrold Publisher's, 1933 (Original Danish ed. published in 1931 under title: Fra mand til kvinde. Later edition: Man into woman: the first sex change, a portrait of Lili Elbe - the true and remarkable transformation of the painter Einar Wegener. - London, Blue Boat Books, 2004.
  • Gerda Wegener / edited by Andrea Rygg Karberg ... [et al.]. - Denmark, Arken Museum of Modern Art, 2015.

External linksEdit