Timed to coincide with International Women’s Day, Bruun Rasmussen in Copenhagen, offered for sale a striking nude by Gerda Wegener (1886-1940). The sitter was her husband Einar, better known as Lili Elbe (1882-1931), one of the first transgender women to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
Elbe and Wegener had met while students at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and were married in 1904. They worked as artists and illustrators before settling in 1912 in Paris, where Elbe could live more openly as a woman. Elbe transitioned in 1930 (when she took the name Lili Ilse Elvenes) and underwent a series of four surgeries, the last of which led to her death.
Elbe’s life was documented in the newspapers of the day and in a semi-autobiographical narrative published posthumously in 1933 under the title Man into Woman: An Authentic Record of a Change of Sex. Her story became better known today after David Ebershoff’s 2000 fictionalised account The Danish Girl became first a best-seller and then a 2015 Oscarwinning film starring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander.
Elbe, who first wore women’s clothing and heels when standing in for a model who was late for an appointment, was a lifelong muse for Wegener. Painted in 1924, I sommervarmen (In the Heat of Summer) shows her reclining on a rococo fauteuil with a fan in one hand and her back turned to the viewer. It was among the pictures featured in the 2016 exhibition Gerda Wegener & The Danish Girl at the Arken Museum of Modern Art and came for sale from a Danish private collection.
Estimated at DKr400,000-500,000, it sold at DKr775,000 (£87,570). The price is a new record for the artist, bettering the £60,000 bid for Les femmes fatales (a work from 1933 that also includes Elbe among the models) at Sotheby’s London in July 2019.