Lili Elbe paintings: who was transgender artist, is The Danish Girl film about her, when was her death?

The award winning 2015 film The Danish Girl was loosely inspired by the life and death of Lili Elbe

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Today, Wednesday 28 December, the iconic Google Doodle celebrates Lili Elbe on what would have been her 140th birthday. As well as being a highly successful and influential painter, Elbe also played a significant role in LGBTQ+ history as one of the very first people to undergo gender affirmation surgery.

In 2015, a fictionalised account of Elbe’s life was adapted for the big screen with The Danish Girl, starring Eddie Redmayne (The Good Nurse, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) as Elbe and Alicia Vikander (Irma Vep, Ex Machina) as Elbe’s wife, Gerda Gottlieb.

This is everything you need to know about Elbe.

Who was Lili Elbe?

Elbe was born on 28 December 1882 in Vejle, Denmark, to parents Ane Marie Thomsen and spice merchant Mogens Wilhelm Wegener. As a teenager, Elbe moved to Copenhagen and enrolled at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.

Elbe met her future wife, Gerda Gottlieb, when they were both students at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen, when Elbe still presented publicly as male. They married in 1904, when Elbe was 22 and Gottlieb 19, and the two artists enjoyed painting together.

While both Elbe and Gottlieb were painters, Elbe focused more on landscapes whereas Gottlieb was an illustrator for books and fashion magazines. Gottlieb’s work also included lesbian erotica illustrations, with many believing that Gottlieb herself was a lesbian or bisexual woman.

Lili Elbe in Copenhagen, 1930 (Photo: Wellcome Collection)Lili Elbe in Copenhagen, 1930 (Photo: Wellcome Collection)
Lili Elbe in Copenhagen, 1930 (Photo: Wellcome Collection)

It was through Gottlieb that Elbe began her journey of self discovery as a woman. She started dressing in women’s clothing when Gottlieb had her stand in for when the model whom she was supposed to paint didn’t turn up for a sitting. Elbe wore a dress and stockings.

Reflecting on the moment in her memoir, she wrote: “I cannot deny, strange as it may sound, that I enjoyed myself in this disguise. I liked the feel of soft women’s clothing, I felt very much at home in them from the first moment.”

Gottlieb became famous for her paintings starring Elbe, although at the time no-one knew who the real model was. Through these paintings, Elbe began to dream of her life as a woman, and began to go by the name Lili. Elbe and Gottlieb would go out together and attend events, where Gottlieb would introduce Elbe as her sister-in-law.

In 1912, the couple moved to Paris, with Elbe living openly as a woman. In Paris, Gottlieb also thrived as an artist, scooping up two gold medals at the World Exhibition in 1925.

In the 1920s, Elbe first learned of the possibility of gender affirming surgery, however these surgeries were in their infancy at the time, and highly experimental. While aware of the risks, Elbe knew that she wanted to go through with the procedure in order to have her body match her gender identity.

Lili Elbe in Paris, 1926 (Photo: Wellcome Collection)Lili Elbe in Paris, 1926 (Photo: Wellcome Collection)
Lili Elbe in Paris, 1926 (Photo: Wellcome Collection)

In 1930, Elbe went to Germany for gender affirming surgery and, over the course of two years, had four operations carried out. As a result of the surgeries, Elbe was able to be recognised legally as a woman and was issued a passport with her name. Her surname, Elbe, was chosen in reference to the river flowing through Dresden, which is where the surgeries were performed.

Because Danish law did not recognise marriage between two women, Elbe and Gottlieb had their marriage annulled by King Christian X. Elbe’s life was fictionalised for the 2000 book and its 2015 film adaptation, The Danish Girl, which portrayed Elbe and Gottlieb as drifting apart following the end of their marriage - however, the two actually remained very close.

Elbe went on to have a relationship with Claude Lejeune, a French art dealer, whom she wished to marry and have children with. In 1931, she had a surgery to transplant a uterus, and to have a vaginal canal constructed. This surgery made her one of the first trans women to have vaginoplasty surgery in history, having had the procedure done just a few weeks after Erin Gohrbandt performed the procedure on Dora Richter. Richter is believed to be the first known person to ever undergo complete male to female gender affirmation surgery.

What artwork was she known for?

Elbe is considered to be one of the most influential painters of her time, with artwork such as:

Road Crucifix on the Bridge over the River Loire in Beaugency, France (1924)Road Crucifix on the Bridge over the River Loire in Beaugency, France (1924)
Road Crucifix on the Bridge over the River Loire in Beaugency, France (1924)
  • Road Crucifix on the Bridge over the River Loire in Beaugency, France (1924)
  • Tour De Cesar in Beaugency, France (1924)
  • Portrait De Femme (1923)
  • View from the Garden of Versailles (1922)
  • Parti Fra Capri (1921)
  • An Autumn Day at Bassin De Flore in the Garden at Versailles (1917)
  • Coastal View from France (1918)
  • Jardin de Versailles (1918)
  • Trianon (1920)

When did she die?

Elbe passed away on 13 September 1931, three months after undergoing the uterus transplant surgery. Her immune system rejected the transplant, with the surgery itself and the subsequent revision leading to an infection which triggered a cardiac arrest.

She was buried in the Trinity Cemetery in Dresden, with her grave levelled in the 1960s. Focus Features, the production company behind The Danish Girl, financed a new tombstone for Elbe in April 2016, following the film’s release in 2015.

David Ebershoff, The Danish Girl author, shared a picture of Elbe’s restored grave on Twitter on 23 April 2016. He wrote: “Lili Elbe’s grave in Trinity Cemetery, Dresden, has been restored. Thank you @gailmu @FocusFeatures #thedanishgirl.”

Speaking to local news outlets at the time about why Elbe’s grave was being rebuilt, Trinity Cemetery manager, Beatrice Teichmann, said: “It was important to us that Lili Elbe showed so much courage in her time.”

Who made the Google Doodle?

Elbe’s Google Doodle comes from Amsterdam based artist Hilde Atalanta, who said that being asked to create the Doodle “meant a lot to me as we share similarities: both Lili and I are painters, and we are both trans individuals”.

Atalanta said: “Oftentimes, when trans individuals are being portrayed by popular media, the struggles and stigma around trans experiences are being emphasised. Being able to portray Lili felt like such a beautiful opportunity to honour her and put her in the spotlight in a way that celebrates her identity; in a way that she deserves to be seen.”

Google Doodle celebrating Lili Elbe (Photo: Google Doodle)Google Doodle celebrating Lili Elbe (Photo: Google Doodle)
Google Doodle celebrating Lili Elbe (Photo: Google Doodle)

When asked what message they hoped people would take from their Doodle, Atalanta said: “With this portrait of Lili I want to show the beauty, resilience, strength, and inspiration that makes trans individuals so wonderful. It is so important that trans individuals are being uplifted and positively represented in mainstream media.

“We need representation of our deep love, our sense of community, our tenderness, our strength. Our resilience, our empathy, our growth. We need to be able to tell our own stories with our own voices. To be able to create this portrait of Lili felt like a wonderful and meaningful way of honouring her.”