John Bauer and Ester Ellqvist

John Bauer Self Portrait (1908 – Volterra, Italy)

I suppose everybody at some time or other has read or had read to them a children’s fable or fairy tale. As a child we would have been fascinated by these stories, but the enchantment was enhanced by the illustrations which were set alongside the printed stories. My blog today is about an artist who was the master of book illustrations which often sat alongside stories about enchanted woods and fairy princesses. Let me introduce you to John Albert Bauer, the Swedish painter and illustrator.

Stackars lilla Basse! (Poor Little Bear) by John Bauer (1912)

John Bauer’s father, Joseph Bauer, came to Sweden from Ebenhausen in Bavaria as a young orphaned teenager in 1863. He eventually settled down in Jönköping, which is situated at the southern end of Sweden’s second largest lake, Vättern, a lake, which would play a fateful part of his son, John’s life. In the early 1870’s Joseph married Emma Charlotta Wadell, whose parents belonged to a farming community in Rogberga, a rural area, eight kilometres south-east of Jönköping.

Villa Sjovik

Joseph Bauer and his family lived in an apartment above their charcuterie shop in the bustling East Square in Jönköping. The family business was a very profitable venture, so much so that Joseph Bauer was able to afford to buy a summer residence, Villa Sjövik, which was built in 1881 and was situated on the west shore of the Rocksjö, a lake close to Jönköping. It was a rural location, surrounded by almost untouched nature. Looking back from the lake, forests could be seen straddling the mountains which bordered the city of Jönköping. Alas, Villa Sjövik was demolished in the 1960’s but in its place today, there is the JOHN BAUERSGATAN (John Bauers Park) bearing the artist’s name. It is now a small area of tranquillity in the middle of the bustling city and there is a sign marking the place where Villa Sjövik once lay.

Eight year old John Bauer

John Bauer was born on June 4th, 1882. He was the third of four children having an elder brother and sister, Hjalmar and Anna and a younger brother Ernst. When John Bauer grew up he spent much time exploring the woods and the nearby fields. Nature to him was his friend. Villa Sjövik was a beautiful residence with a large verdant garden and leading from it was a long jetty which led to the lake which made for an ideal bathing spot. The Bauer family enjoyed their time at their summer residence, away from their town apartment, and after a time, they decided to live permanently at Villa Sjövik.

John Bauer at work

The Bauer family happiness ended abruptly in 1889 when John was seven years old. His sister Anna died suddenly at the tender age of thirteen and this death had an overwhelming effect on John and his family. Living in an apartment situated above their father’s charcuterie, he was always given to sketching and drawing. During his time at Villa Sjövik, he would spend time walking through the Småland forest, always with his sketchbook. It was probably during these teenage years that he began to draw images of the imaginary creatures which he believed inhabited the woods, such as forest trolls and it could be the time that his imaginary fairy-tale world evolved. Another reason for John’s fascination with the world of fairy tales came from the numerous stories he and his siblings were told by their maternal grandmother Johanna Ellqvist. In these recounted myths and legends, she would tell her grandchildren about superstitions and the powers and the secrets of nature which undoubtedly remained in John Bauer’s mind and would play such a big part of his artistic life.

An Old Mountain Troll by John Bauer (1904)

His initial schooling was at Jonkopings Hogre Allmana Laroverk, the Jönköping Public School of Higher Education and then from the age of ten to sixteen he attended the Jonkopings Tekniska Skola, the Jönköping Technical School. John’s passage through school was undistinguished. He was, at best, a mediocre student who lacked any interest in his studies and during lessons would often be lost in his daydreams and doodling on his books and composing caricatures of his teachers. However, one thing was certain, his ability to draw and his interest in art was undeniable. His interest in art was lost on his parents who were too occupied with their own life. They understood he did not like school and showed no interest in getting a job so were supportive when their sixteen-year-old son told them he wanted his future life to be centred around art.

Princess Daga by John Bauer (1907)

At the age of sixteen John left home and moved to Stockholm to study art. Although his parents showed little interest in his artistic ambition they did support him financially, enabling him to pursue his future plans. It must have been a difficult time for the teenager as although he was immersed in his chosen life of art he must overcome his doubts about his own ability. At sixteen years of age Bauer was too young to enrol at the Stockholm’s Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts and so became a student at the Kaleb Ahltins school for painters for the next two years.

Troll by John Bauer (1912)

In 1900, aged 18, Bauer was accepted into the Swedish Academy of Fine Arts. He studied traditional illustrations and made drawings of plants, medieval costumes and croquis, which is the quick and sketchy drawing of a live model. There were Classical Art classes, classes which looked at anatomy, perspective, and he would also be expected to attend lectures on the History of Art. When he got home he would also be expected to complete drawing assignments. All of this was to serve him well in his later work. He did well at the Academy and in his 1991 biography of John Bauer, the author Gunnar Lundqvist quotes a comment of one of Bauer’s tutors, the noted historic painter, Gustaf Cederström, who had this to say about Bauer’s work:

“…His art is what I would call great art, in his almost miniaturized works he gives an impression of something much more powerful than many monumental artists can accomplice on acres of canvas. It is not size that matters but content…”

Söndags-Nisse magazine

Whilst a student at the Academy he supplemented the money he received from his parents by working as an illustrator for various magazines. One of the greatest influences on him was the fellow illustrator Albert Engström, who was one of the most influential journalists in Sweden. He was a humourist and cartoonist with a great European reputation, and in America he was referred to as the “European Mark Twain”. John Bauer sold his first illustrations to the Söndags-Nisse, which was a light-hearted Swedish magazine. He continued to earn money with his illustrations for this journal and they even offered him a permanent job, which he turned down.

Laplanders in snowstorm by John Bauer (1904)

The far north of Sweden, Norway and Finland was the land of the Sami people but with the discovery of vast amounts of iron ore in that region much of their lands were taken over by large mining companies. In 1904 Carl Adam Victor Lundholm planned to publish a book, Lappland, det stora svenska framtidslandet (Lappland, the great Swedish land of the future) which was all about the beauty of this area known as Lapland and to focus on the native Sami people who lived in this wintry region. To make the book complete Lundholm wanted it to be illustrated. Established artists were commissioned.  Bauer applied but as he was only young and inexperienced he was asked to prove his abilities by going to Skansen and sketch the Sami people.

Model Village at Skansen

Skansen was the first open-air museum and zoo in Sweden which is located on the island Djurgården in Stockholm. It had been in existence since October 1891 and revealed the way of life in the different parts of Sweden prior to the industrial era. This open-air museum atop the hill dominates the island and the site includes a full replica of an average 19th-century town, in which craftsmen in traditional dress such as tanners, shoemakers, silversmiths, bakers and glass-blowers demonstrate their skills in period surroundings. There is also an open-air zoo containing a wide range of Scandinavian animals including the bison, brown bear, moose, grey seal, lynx, otter, red fox, reindeer, wolf, and wolverine (as well as some non-Scandinavian animals because of their popularity). There are also farmsteads where rare breeds of farm animals can be seen.

Lundholm was pleased with what Bauer produced after his visits to Skansen and commissioned him to provide some of the book illustrations, and so in July 1904 Bauer travelled to Lappland, staying there a month, sketching, and photographing the area, its people, and their way of life. The book was eventually published in 1908 and eleven of Bauer’s watercolours graced the book. Bauer also turned many of his sketches and photographs into paintings.

Self portrait by Ester Ellqvist

A fellow first-year student of John Bauer was Ester Ellqvist. Ester was born in Ausås in southern Sweden on October 4th, 1880. She was the youngest of seven children of Karl Kristersson Ellqvist and Johanna Nilsdotter. Ester had three older brothers, Carl, Oscar, and Ernst and three older sisters, Selma, Hilda and Gerda. A couple of years after Esther was born, the Ellqvist family moved to Stockholm, where Esther went to the technical school and amongst other things learnt to draw perspective, which was one of the requirements for being admitted into Stockholm’s art academy. One of her sister, Gerda, became an art and needlework teacher, and two of her brothers, Oscar and Ernst made their living as photographers.

John and Ester

John and Ester never studied together as at that time males and females were not allowed to attend the same classes for the men and their artistic education was conducted differently. This was problematic for women such as Ester as although she had the artistic talent and the ambition to succeed she did not have the same opportunities as her fellow male students.

Dubbelporträtt av barn (Double portrait of children) by Ester Ellqvist

John and Ester began seriously courting around 1903 but it was not a close courtship as they were apart most of the time, and their courtship often just existed as an exchange of letters. But these letters were important as each told the other about their loves, their worries and their hopes for the future

Ester photographed by her brother Oscar.

For John, blonde-haired Ester was the personification of a beautiful fairy tale princess and she would be his great inspiration when he started to concentrate on his illustrations for fairy tale books. John and Ester were engaged in 1903, much to Bauer’s family dismay for they believed their son was too young to marry and had yet to establish himself as a professional artist or illustrator.

The Fairy Princess, 1904, oil sketch by John Bauer

However, a year after the couple completed their Academy course they were married on December 18th, 1906. Whether it was just marriage jitters but before the wedding Ester was beginning to have doubts about her relationship with John and their future together. One must remember that the two had vastly different upbringings. Ester, except for her first couple of years, lived in the city of Stockholm and was used to all the things cities could offer. She was a lively vivacious person who had many friends and for her, life in the city was exciting and offered up many social events. John Bauer on the other hand was a solitary person who was brought up in a small town and spent much of his life alone or with his brothers wandering around the nearby forests of South Vätterbygden where he gained inspiration for his paintings. The other problem for the newly-weds was that Ester, like John, was an aspiring artist but now, after marriage, she was expected to give up her art and concentrate on her husband, their home, and the family.

The Königsberg by John Bauer

The turning point in John Bauer’s artistic career came in 1907 when the publishers, Åhlén & Åkerlund, asked him, to provide illustrations for their newly launched Bland tomtar og troll, (Among Gnomes and Trolls) which was a popular Swedish annual which was full of folklore stories and fairy tales written by various authors.  The first edition was published in 1907. Except for 1911 issue, Bauer’s illustrations appeared in the first nine publications. The reason that the 1911 edition of the annual did not contain his illustrations was due to Bauer and the publisher falling out about who owned the watercolours Bauer had given the publisher for the books. He wanted them, they refused saying his material belonged to them and so he declined to supply any material for the 1911 issue. The result was a disaster for the publisher as sales of that year’s annual slumped. The publisher caved in. Bauer was granted the copyright of his paintings which were all returned to him and he resumed producing paintings for their annuals and sales of the annual rose.  Many of the illustrations would be of blonde-haired princesses for which Ester was his ideal muse.

Lucia by John Bauer

One can imagine how excited Bauer was to produce the illustrations. As a child he would walk through the woods close to Villa Sjövik and daydream about the trolls and fairy princess he imagined lived in the woods and now he could convert his dreams into pictorial reality. His illustrations depicted the beauty of Swedish nature with its dense forests pierced by sunlight as it penetrated the gigantic tree canopy. There is a mysticism about his forest illustrations which may sound a chord to those who have ever explored the dark world of a forest.

Ännu sitter Tuvstarr kvar och ser ner i vattnet (Still, Tuvstarr sits and gazes down into the water) by John Bauer (1913)

Due to the restrictions of the technology available to his printers, the 1907to 1910 editions were produced in just two colours: black and yellow even though the watercolour paintings he had given the publisher were in full colour. Things changed with printing techniques in 1912, and the pictures could then be printed in three colours: black, yellow, and blue which were now closer to Bauer’s original paintings. In 1914, following his return from Italy, his illustrations started to be influenced by the Italian Renaissance. However, after eight years of supplying paintings for the annuals, Bauer had had enough and wanted to move on with his art and 1915 marked the last year he provided material for the annuals.

In 1931 a book was published which had extracts from the original volumes illustrated by John Bauer and the proceeds from its sales went to raise money for a memorial honouring Bauer.  One of the most memorable illustrations from these annuals was his 1913 picture, Ännu sitter Tuvstarr kvar och ser ner i vattnet. (Still, Tuvstarr sits and gazes down into the water).

Ester in Italy

In Gunnar Lindqvist’s 1991 biography of John Bauer he states that in the Spring of 1908, John’s father financed his son and daughter-in-law’s trip to Southern Germany and Italy. John and his father Joseph had visited Germany in 1902. John and Ester’s journey lasted for almost two years during which they studied art, visiting museums and churches as well as sketching and painting. The couple visited Verona, Florence, and Siena.  Whilst in Tuscany they spent two months in Volterra, a walled mountain top town of which its history dates to before the 7th century BC. They continued through Naples and Capri, constantly writing home to their families, telling them about all they had seen and done.

The Root Trolls by John Bauer (1917)

It was on their return to Sweden in 2010 that they first got sight of Villa Björkudden on the shores of Lake Bunn, a few miles south east of Gränna. They fell in love with the house and in 1914 they bought it.  The following year in the autumn Ester gives birth to their first child, a boy named Bengt, but always referred to as Putte. The nickname may have derived from the Italian word putti, a figure in a work of art depicted as a chubby male child – a cherub! Bengt actually appeared in a painting by his father entitled The Root Trolls, which Bauer completed in 1917.

Ester Bauer and her son Bengt

The marriage of John and Ester Bauer was failing. Ester saw herself and her life being taken away from her. She had wanted to be a portrait artist but instead she was simply a lonely housewife married to an artist. She believed she had nothing to show for herself. Again, another underlying cause for the unhappy marriage was Ester’s discontent about where she lived. Ester had always wanted the city life and John was content with his countryside home on the bank of Lake Brunn. They did return to Stockholm during the winter but that was never enough for Ester. Whether the decision to buy a new house, a permanent home in Stockholm was John’s attempt to save their marriage, we will never know but it sadly ended in the death of the family.

Train accident at Getå on October 1st 1918

On October 1st, 1918 there occurred the worst train disaster in Swedish history caused by a landslide at Getå.  Forty-two people died when the train de-railed due to the collapse of the track after the landslide. The train jumped the embankment, landing on the road below. The tragedy was well-publicized and it was to lead to a fateful decision by Bauer.

The ferry, Per Brahe

Seven weeks later, on November 19th, 1918 John, Ester and two-year-old Bengt had to go to Stockholm to their new home but because of all the media reports about the Getå train disaster John took the  decision to take the  ferry Per Brahe from Granna to Stockholm instead of going by train. The small steamer carried eight passengers and sixteen crew and was fully loaded with iron stoves, agricultural equipment, sewing machines and barrels of produce. All the cargo did not fit into the steamer’s hold and thus a significant portion had to be stored, unsecured, on deck, making the ship top-heavy. The weather was bad, and the ferry sailed into a raging storm. The violent rolling of the vessel in the big swell caused the deck cargo to shift, and some of it went overboard which destabilized the vessel. The ship foundered and capsized, sinking stern first, just 500 metres from its next port of call, Hastholmen.

Bauer’s Obituary notice
“…The artist John Albert Bauer, his wife Ester-Lisa Bauer nee Ellqvist and son John Beng Olof passed away at sea and leave us, siblings, relatives and friends sorrowful and lamented…”

All twenty-four people on board, including the Bauers, drowned. John Bauer was thirty-six, Ester, thirty-eight and their son Bengt was just three years old when they perished that night in Lake Vättern.

The Bauer Family grave

The Bauers were buried at the Östra cemetery in Jönköping.

Who knows what would have become of the Bauer family if they had not died on that fateful night. Would their marriage have survived? Would John Bauer change his artistic style? Would Ester start painting again? We will never know.

John Bauer and the Mountain King film poster (2017)

A film about the life of John and Ester Bauer was made in 2017 and can be downloaded free at:

http://www.4kmoviehub.com/watch-john-bauer-and-the-mountain-king-2018-online-free


A great deal of information for this blog was gleaned from:

Jönköpings läns museum website

Out flew the web and floated wide blog

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Gerda Gottlieb and Einar Wegener

Gerda and Einar
Gerda and Einar

The artist I am looking at today was unknown to me.  The more I read about her the more I realise I should have been aware of her especially after the recent publicity.  Howeve,r so that I am not cast alone as the “unknowledgeable one” I wonder how many of you have heard of Gerda Marie Fredrikke Gottlieb.  Well, have you?   I am not going to totally give away why you, like me, should have known her until a little later in the blog.  Today’s blog is not just about her but also about her first husband Einar Wegener.

Gerda Wegener (née Gottlieb)
Gerda Wegener (1886 – 1940)

Gerda Marie Fredrikke Gottlieb was born on March 15th 1886 in the small rural town of Hammelev in the eastern part of central Jutland. She was the daughter of Emil Gottlieb, a clergyman in the Catholic Church and Justine Gottlieb (née Osterberg). Although she had three other siblings they all died before adulthood.  Life as the daughter of a clergyman was a very conservative one.  Probably, because of her father’s profession, the family moved around the country.  Whilst still a child the family moved the short distance south from Hammelev to the coastal town of Grenaa and later to the central Jutland town of Hobro.

Gerda showed a love of art and an unusual artistic talent at a young age and began to receive some local artistic training. In 1903, when she was seventeen years of age, and had completed her schooling, she managed, after a lot of cajoling, to have her parents agree to allow her to carry on with her art studies and enrol at the newly opened women’s college at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen.  Gerda proved to be a very talented student and in 1904 some of her work was exhibited in the Kunsthal Charlottenborg which is the official gallery of the Royal Danish Academy of Art.  It was at this artistic academy that fate was going to change her life for it was here that she met and fell in love with a fellow Academy student Einar Wegener.

Einar Wegener
Einar Wegener

Einar Mogens Andreas Wegener was born a male (important to note!) on December 28th 1882 in the small Danish town, Vejle, which is situated in the southeast of the Jutland Peninsula and lies at the head of Vejle Fjord.  He was the youngest of four children. By all accounts Einar was a precocious child who, like Gerda, showed an early artistic talent. He trained as a painter at the Vejle Technical School, and on graduating in 1902 enrolled at the Royal Academy of Art in Copenhagen.

Capri, Italy by Einar Wegener (c.1920)
Capri, Italy by Einar Wegener (c.1920)

In his own works Einar Wegener often painted landscapes from the place where he came from, and later scenes from the countryside in France. Einar Wegener received Neuhausens prize in 1907 and exhibited at Kunstnernes Efteraarsudstilling (the Artists Fall Exhibition), Vejle Art Museum and in the Saloon and Salon d’Automme in Paris . These two aspiring young artists would often paint together although their interest in art differed.

Landscape by Einar Wegener (1908)
Landscape by Einar Wegener (1908)

Einar liked to paint landscapes whereas Gerda preferred illustrative work, the type she would have seen in fashion magazines.  Her main influences derived from her love of French eighteenth century Rococo art depicting well dressed women in luxurious and colourful clothes painted by the great French artists of that time such as Jean-Antoine Watteau, Francois Boucher, and Jean-Honoré Fragonard.  Having a love of illustrative work she also admired the work of a contemporary of hers, the British Victorian illustrator Aubrey Beardsley

The Morning Dream, an illustration by Aubrey Beardsley
The Morning Dream, an illustration by Aubrey Beardsley

Beardsley, a major figure in Aestheticism and Art Nouveau, was influenced by the pre-Raphaelite painter and illustrator, Edward Burne-Jones and the woodcuts of the Ukiyo-e movement in Japanese art.  He had a distinctive style contrasting the subtle use of line with bold masses of black.  Many of his illustrations were classed as decadent and as an author he wrote an erotic novel, Under the Hill, and illustrated it with pornographic pictures.

Costumes Parisiens - illustration by Gerda Wegener (1914)
Costumes Parisiens – illustration by Gerda Wegener (1914)

Gerda Weneger had a refined and decadent character style, inspired by the English illustrator and her paintings split the views of the critic and public, some of who were excited with her work whilst it offended others, believing it to be simply pornographic. However in a lot of her erotic work Wegener often ensured that the ladies depicted had a disarming and somewhat enchanting twinkle in their eyes which countered the possible pornographic nature of the work. There is a distinct sense of fun and joie de vivre in Wegener’s work.

Lesbian illustration by Gerda Wegener
Lesbian illustration by Gerda Wegener

Gerda now lived in a bohemian area of Copenhagen populated by actors and dancers as well as artists her early works often depicted long-limbed heavily made-up, colourfully dressed exuberant females who were full of joie de vivre rather than art’s normal depictions of somewhat lifeless women.  In some way this could have been her challenge to the art establishment’s depiction of women, even challenging society’s concepts of women and challenge the standards of the time. Her book and magazine illustrations included ones which focused on high fashion and which were acceptable and loved by the public but she also produced illustrations featuring lesbianism and erotica which were often frowned upon my many parts of society.  There was a belief that Gerda herself was a lesbian.

Lili Elbe (1926)
Lili Elbe (1926)

Although I had never heard of Gerda and Einar Wegener they have become well-known not for their art but his sexuality which was brought to life in the 2016 biographical romantic film, The Danish Girl, which was based on the fictional book, of the same name, written in 2000 by David Ebershoff.    The book and the film also derived their information from a 1931 book about Einar.   The biography of Einar Wegener (Lili Elbe) was published in Denmark in 1931 under the title Fra mand til kvinde (From Man to Woman).  This was actually an autobiography edited by Niels Hoyer (real name Ernst Ludwig Hathom Jacobson) who had put together many manuscripts and letters after Lili’s death.  So when did the problematic sexuality of Einar first surface?  The Danish Girl film and book probably over simplified the beginnings of Einar’s doubt about his own sexuality but they refer to the day when he was asked to pose for his wife.  He described the occasion:

“…About this time Grete painted the portrait of the then popular actress in Copenhagen, Anna Larsen. One day Anna was unable to attend the appointed sitting. On the telephone she asked Grete, who was somewhat vexed: ‘Cannot Andreas pose as a model for the lower part of the picture? His legs and feet are as pretty as mine…”

Einar was very reluctant but Gerda finally persuaded him.   When Anna turned up unexpectedly at their studio she was very impressed with Einar’s portrayal of her and nicknamed him Lili.  On seeing (Einar, whose middle name was Andreas), she reportedly said:

 “…You know, Andreas, you were certainly a girl in a former existence, or else Nature has made a mistake with you this time…”

Two Cocottes with Hats (Gerda and Lili) by Gerda Wegener
Two Cocottes with Hats (Gerda and Lili) by Gerda Wegener

Gerda was so pleased with Einar as a female model she persuaded him to model for her on a number of future occasions.  Wegener’s fashion industry paintings featured beautiful women dressed in chic attire, one of the most popular of which was a captivating lady with a stylish short bob, full lips, and haunting almond-shaped brown eyes. Who would have believed that this exquisite beauty was her husband, Einar, who posed as her fashion model while donning women’s clothing. It was through these experiences that her husband Einar came to realize his true gender identity and began living his life as a woman. Einar’s sexuality became even more complicated when he and Gerda would go to parties as two females and often Gerda would introduce Lili Elba as Einar’s sister.

Gerda and Einar married in 1905 whilst they were still students at the Academy.  She was nineteen and he was twenty-two.

Portrait of Ellen von Kohl by Gerda Wegener
Portrait of Ellen von Kohl by Gerda Wegener

In 1907, Gerda completed a portrait entitled Portrait of Ellen von Kohl but although as we look at it now you will be surprised to know it caused quite a controversy and sparked the Peasant Painter Feud which was a national debate covered in the pages of the Danish newspaper Politiken.  It was all about ‘distasteful’ paintings of excess, (the smouldering look of Ellen von Kohl was seen as being too lascivious!) for the favoured norm at the time was for realism favoured representations of ‘ordinary people in the countryside’. The debate became so heated that the portrait was rejected by both the Kunsthal Charlottenborg, which was the official gallery of the Royal Danish Academy of Art, and also the Den Frie gallery, which was founded by the Association of Danish Artists, in protest against the admission requirements for the Kunsthal Charlottenborg.

Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener
Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener

Gerda completed her art course at the Academy in 1907 and once again fate was going to play a part in her future as in 1908, soon after leaving the Academy she entered and won a drawing competition organised by the leading Danish broadsheet newspaper Politiken. It was competition to draw ‘Copenhagen Woman’.  The newspaper was so pleased by her winning entry that they offered her a job as a regular contributor and soon she established herself as a capable cartoonist and illustrator.  This was just the start of her career as the recognition launched her into the fashion magazine industry and soon she became a leading illustrator of women’s high fashion in the Art Deco style of the time

Although the bohemian quarter of Copenhagen, where the couple lived, had a somewhat laissez-faire attitude towards life, the pair eventually moved to the more liberal Paris and soon Gerda and Einar began to live as two women.  In the French capital, Gerda was able to further her art career and, some would have us believe that she became a more active lesbian.

Lili and Gerda by Gerda Wegener
Lili and Gerda by Gerda Wegener

Besides posing as a woman for his wife’s paintings, Einar only dressed as Lili and was a tremendous hit on the bourgeois Parisian scene, with all its decadence, art, and sex. It soon became common knowledge that Lili and Einar were the same person but for Einar he had the satisfaction in knowing he would not be ridiculed.

Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener
Lili Elbe by Gerda Wegener

Sadly for Einar simply dressing as a woman was not enough and he was suffering mental torment as Lili slowly took over his life.  For him, Einar was slowly dying and Lili was taking control.  Einar viewed himself as an artist but, as his alter-ego Lili, he viewed things very differently.  He described Lili as:

 “…thoughtless, flighty, very superficially-minded woman”, prone to fits of weeping and barely able to speak in front of powerful men…”

Illustration by Gerda Wegener for the magazine La Baionette
Illustration by Gerda Wegener for the magazine La Baionette

Life in Paris was good for Gerda who found success as a portrait painter, fashion illustrator and caricaturist and received many commissions for illustrations from La Vie Parisienne, a French weekly magazine founded in Paris in 1863, Le Rire, the successful humour magazine, La Baïonnette, the magazine which started a few years after Gerda and Einar moved to Paris, as well as the elite Journal des Dames et des Modes, a favourite of artists, intellectuals, and high societyHer success guaranteed a degree of fame and soon she was the primary breadwinner of the couple.

Self portrait by Gerda Wegener
Self portrait by Gerda Wegener

Andrea Rygg Karberg, art historian and curator at ARKEN Museum of Modern Art in Denmark has no doubt about the artistic ability of Gerda Wegener, saying:

“…Gerda was a pioneer who spent two decades as part of the Parisian art scene and revolutionised the way women are portrayed in art.  Throughout history, paintings of beautiful women were done by men.  Women were typically seen through the male gaze. But Gerda changed all that because she painted strong, beautiful women with admiration and identification – as conscious subjects rather than objects…”

Café by Gerda Wegener
Café by Gerda Wegener

With her new lesbian lifestyle in the avant-garde French capital, Gerda Wegener’s art became considerably more racy and scandalous. In addition to her fashion world portraiture that was featured in many fashion magazines, Wegener completed paintings featuring nude women often depicted in erotic, some would say lewd, poses. These paintings were termed “lesbian erotica,” and were published in art books, the most notorious being the Adventures of Casanova.  Some of these risqué paintings were exhibited publicly and the erotic nature and lesbian theme of the works often led to a public outcry.  Far from being taken aback by such vociferous criticism of her work by sections of the public, Gerda revelled in the notoriety.

Illustration by Gerda Wegener
Illustration by Gerda Wegener

The phrase “there is no such thing as bad publicity” may be correct as far as the sale of her work but for Gerda there was a price to pay.  Christian X, the King of Denmark, became aware of Gerda’s marriage to Einar Wegener when he, Lili Elba, had legally become a woman, and so the king declared their marriage invalid in October 1930. Maybe the time had come to an end for Gerda and Einar’s marriage anyway but in 1930 following the annulment, the couple parted ways amicably.

Femme a la Rose by Gerda Wegener
Femme a la Rose by Gerda Wegener

Gerda Wegener following the end of her marriage to Einar married an Italian military officer, Major Fernando Porta, and the couple went to live in Morocco. She continued to paint and would sign her paintings as ‘Gerda Wegener Porta’. The marriage was not a happy one and did not last long with couple divorcing in 1936.

Indian couple seated on a balcony by Gerda Wegener Porta
Indian couple seated on a balcony by Gerda Wegener Porta

She returned to Denmark in 1938, but by then, her paintings and illustrations were no longer in demand and sadly Gerda just managed to eke out a meagre living by painting and selling postcards.  She managed to exhibit her work one last time in 1939.  She had no children and her latter years were spent alone in relative obscurity and with the loneliness came her reliance on alcohol.  Gerda Wegener died on July 28th 1940 in Frederiksburg, Denmark aged 54, a few months after the German army marched into Denmark.  She was buried alone at Solbjerg Park cemetery in Copenhagen.

Einar Wegener / Lili Elbe (1882 - 1931)
Einar Wegener / Lili Elbe
(1882 – 1931)

Einar Wegener continually struggled with his sexuality and believed that Lili Elba was his true self.  It was no longer enough to dress as a woman, he believed that the only way to be at peace with himself was to undergo revolutionary sex reassignment surgery and for that he had to travel to Germany.  In 1930 he attended Dr Ludwig Levy-Lenz clinic in Berlin where he was castrated and had his penis surgically removed.  The following year, 1931, he underwent further surgery, vaginoplasty, which was a procedure that results in the construction of the vagina.  Sadly for Einar these surgical procedures were carried out at a time before antibiotics and he died in Dresden of an infection on September 13th 1931, aged 48.