Born in 1885 or 1886, Gerda Marie Fredrikke Wegener (née Gottlieb) came from a very conservative Lutheran family. A Danish illustrator and painter, she was known for her fashion illustrations and later became renowned for work that pushed the boundaries of her era concerning relationships and gender. At the time classified as “lesbian erotica,” Gerda’s works were done in the styles of Art Nouveau and Art Deco.
Shortly after the turn of the century, Gerda began studying art at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts where she met Einar Wegener, a fellow student. They married and adopted a Bohemian lifestyle. During this period, Einar began to assume a female persona and started to use the name Lili Elbe. Gerda loved to paint Lili and frequently used her as a model in her work.
Lili suffered from depression, so Gerda took her to Rome to recuperate in 1929. Depressed and trapped in a body that she did not like, Lili appears in Gerda’s 1929 painting “Portrait of Lili in a Red Dress” with dark eyes and one hand pressed expressively over her heart. After this painting was completed, the couple returned to Germany in 1930 where Lili underwent one of the first sex reassignment surgeries ever performed. Sadly, Lili died in 1931 from surgical complications.
Gerda continued to paint after Lili’s death although, despite having won significant recognition at the 1925 International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts, she had difficulty making ends meet. In 1940, at the age of 54, Gerda Wegener died in obscurity, shortly after the Nazi invasion of Denmark. Her life and relationship with Einar Wegener are the subject of the acclaimed 2000 novel, The Danish Girl, and the 2015 film of the same name.
In addition to The Bennett Collection of Women Figurative Realists, Gerdas' work can be seen at The Baltimore Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Shin Collection, and the Wellcome Collection in London.