The Extraordinary Life of Gerda Wegener

The fact that Danish artist Gerda Wegener was one of the few female artists to find commercial success in Paris during the teens and twenties, is perhaps one of the least intriguing aspects of her extraordinary life.  Born in Denmark in 1885, Wegener studied art at the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Copenhagen.  In 1912, she relocated to Paris with her former teacher and husband, the painter Einar Wegener.  Gerda found success almost immediately working as an illustrator for fashion magazines including La Vie Parisienne and the ultra exclusive Journal des Dames et des Modes, the limited-edition fashion journal intended for artists, intellectuals and high society.  Gerda’s work in Journal appeared alongside that of leading illustrators of the Art Deco period, including George Barbier, Charles Martin, Umberto Brunelleschi and Georges Lepape. Commissions poured in for Wegener, who also worked as a portrait painter and illustrator for numerous volumes of erotica that were produced in Paris during this period—despite the fact the subject of sex was largely considered taboo for women.  This is but one of the reasons that Wegener’s exquisite and tasteful renderings of female sexuality are now highly sought after by collectors of erotica.

Gerda’s willingness to explore themes of love, mystery and sex were undoubtedly inspired and indulged by her relationship with her husband.  When, one day, a noted actress failed to show up for her portrait sitting, her husband donned a dress and sat for the session in the actress’ absence.  This was the birth of ‘Lili Elbe,’ Einar’s feminine alter-ego that became a serious source of delight and amusement for the couple who often went out in public together dressed as best girlfriends.  The concept of gender began to weigh heavily on Einar, who came to feel he was meant to live openly as a woman, and in 1930, he became one of the first recorded recipients of a gender reassignment surgery.  Although, the King of Denmark annulled Gerda and Lili’s marriage, the two remained quite close until Lili died in 1931, as the result of a failed uterine transplant. Gerda remarried and lived in Morocco for a short period before returning to Denmark where she died in 1940.

Today, Wegener’s work has fallen into relative obscurity, despite a small cult following and the inclusion of many of her portraits in French museum collections.  Wegener’s illustrative style was highly expressive and her depictions of women are always spirited, wether they be innocent ingenues or seductive sirens, one can detect a sense of intellect and mischief simmering just below the surface of their delicate demeanor. 

These pochoir plates are from Journal des Dames et des Modes in 1914, and evidence her status as a luminary of the Art Deco period, who deserves the same accolades as her better known contemporaries, such as Barbier, Lepape, Erté, and Paul Iribe.



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4 Responses to The Extraordinary Life of Gerda Wegener

  1. tamsen young says:

    Thank you for this post! This story was one of the real gems that came out of my research for the 2004 exhibition The Artful Line: Drawings and Prints from FIT’s Special Collections. It was too extensive and a detour to include in the exhibition but I became obsessed with finding out more about Gerda Wegener, only to find how little info there was of her life. Does the library have the biography about her?

    Wonderful blog!! I’ll share with the Museum at FIT community shortly!

  2. Melissa Kyle says:

    Hello I have one of these wonderful paintings by Gerda Wegener. My Great Aunt gave to me when I got married 15yrs ago. May people have told me to have this picture looked at, they feel it has value. I am not sure where to take it to have it apraised. I was hoping that you could assist me in this. It is the painting of the women in the yellow dress 1914 in looks to be France. Thank you for your help.

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