American art collector Peggy Guggenheim (1898–1979) was instrumental in the promotion of modern art in the twentieth century. Independently wealthy, she lived most of her life in Europe; she had a particular affection for Venice and her longtime home there is now a renowned museum for art dating from the first half of the twentieth century. Today, her name remains associated with the avant-garde, Cubist, Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist movements in art.
A Child of Wealth
Marguerite Guggenheim, known throughout her life as Peggy, was born into the massively wealthy Guggenheim family on August 26, 1898. Her father, Benjamin, was the fifth of Meyer Guggenheim's seven children and her mother, Floretta Seligman, came from a New York banking family. The Guggenheims were among the most prominent of New York's Jewish families, and the young Guggenheim had a privileged upbringing. When she was barely a teenager, however, personal tragedy struck the family when Benjamin Guggenheim died as a passenger on the Titanic; famously, he and his valet sat on the deck in formal evening wear, drinking brandy and smoking cigars while the liner sank. Foregoing college, Guggenheim first worked in support of the war effort and later at a radical bookstore, the Sunwise Turn. At the age of 21, Guggenheim came into her inheritance and shortly thereafter moved to Paris.
Marriage, Divorce, and Other Loves
In Paris, Guggenheim became fascinated with the growing Post-World War I avant-garde movement among artists and writers. One of these writers, Laurence Vail—known as the "King of Bohemia"—attracted Guggenheim's attention; quickly, the two were romantically involved and soon married in March 1922. The marriage produced two children: son Michael, called Sindbad, in 1923 and daughter Pegeen in 1925. The family settled in the south of France where Guggenheim recollected in her memoirs that "we had a wonderful life," enjoying the picturesque rural atmosphere and the company of friends such as radical activist Emma Goldman and dancer Isadora Duncan. The "wonderful life" was however marred by frequent fighting between Guggenheim and her husband; in 1928, Guggenheim, in the throes of an affair with writer John Holms, left Vail. The two did not officially divorce for two more years and remained lifelong friends.
Guggenheim and Holms carried on an intense love affair for several years, traveling throughout Europe and finally settling in London after Holms suffered a painful wrist injury. Five months after dislocating his wrist, Holms underwent an operation to repair it; during the operation, his heart stopped and he died. After his death, Guggenheim, as she said in her memoirs entitled Out of this Century, "was in perpetual terror of losing [her] soul." For the rest of her days, she continued to consider Holms to be her great love. Guggenheim found some comfort with Douglas Garman, the English publisher with whom she began an affair shortly after Holms' passing. The two lived together at rural Yew Tree Cottage, where Guggenheim had a rather isolated life. This continued for three years, until 1936, when three events which foreshadowed the rest of Guggenheim's life occurred: first, French Surrealists held a wildly successful show in London, although Guggenheim declined to attend, at that time considering Surrealism over; second, Guggenheim spent ten delightful days vacationing alone in Venice; and lastly, she and Garman separated.
The First Gallery
After ending her relationship with Garman, Guggenheim found herself at loose ends. Looking for an occupation, she followed the suggestion of a friend and opened a London art gallery, Guggenheim Jeune, in January 1938. The gallery's first show, featuring works by eccentric French artist and poet Jean Cocteau and curated by famed Modernist Marcel Duchamp, was a success. Later shows by notable Surrealist, Cubist and other contemporary artists including Wassily Kandinsky, Henry Moore, and Max Ernst, among others, made the gallery one of the most important in the modern art movement; however, the gallery was not financially successful—Guggenheim took to buying something from each artist she exhibited so they would have at least one sale, a sympathetic move that became the genesis of her art collection—and decided to exchange her gallery for ownership of a modern art museum. However, with the onset of World War II in 1939, plans for the museum were indefinitely delayed and Guggenheim settled again in Paris.
There, often advised by Duchamp, she began actively purchasing art. Guggenheim spent the next two years building her art collection at a terrific rate before the German occupation of France finally drove her to return to the United States in 1941, accompanied by her ex-husband Laurence Vail, his current wife, painter Max Ernst, and the seven children associated with the adults. The last few weeks Guggenheim spent in France, at times, terrified her; a Jew, she was questioned by the authorities and only by repeatedly insisting that she was an American and not admitting her religion was she able to go free. Ernst and Guggenheim took up a romantic relationship around the time of their journey to America; the couple married in 1942. This marriage was, like Guggenheim's first, a particularly stormy one marked by quarrels and occasionally physical violence.
Return to New York City
Guggenheim's second gallery, Art of this Century, opened in New York City in October 1942 even as her marriage to Ernst was rapidly deteriorating. The gallery's interior was designed by architect Frederick Kiesler to present the paintings in a setting as surreal as they were; the initial exhibition, featuring Guggenheim's entire personal collection of 171 pieces, was greatly successful. At the opening night of the gallery, Guggenheim famously wore one earring by Surrealist artist Yves Tanguy and another by Abstract artist Alexander Calder to show that she supported both movements equally. More exhibitions followed, including the first American show devoted entirely to works by women artists and one dedicated to artists under the age of 35.
Art of This Century was one of the first galleries to show modern American artists alongside their European predecessors and contemporaries, lending them a credibility that may otherwise have eluded them; the gallery particularly helped Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, both of whom held their first shows at Guggenheim's New York gallery, gain notoriety. In 1943, she commissioned a mural from Pollock which was the largest work he had executed to date; putting the piece off for several months, Pollock eventually turned out the over twenty-foot long, six-foot high painting in one long day. Upon delivering the piece to Guggenheim's home, he discovered the painting was eight inches too long and at the advice of Marcel Duchamp, simply cut the extra length from one end. Guggenheim would later donate this work to the University of Iowa. Art of This Century continued to show works by an increasingly all-American group of artists until financial losses caused its closure in 1947.
Naturally, Guggenheim's life was not entirely confined to art during the mid-1940s. Her marriage to Ernst had officially ended in divorce in 1946, the same year that marked the publishing of the first volume of her memoirs. Entitled Out of this Century,—a suggestion of Laurence Vail's—the book was written in 1944 and 1945 after Guggenheim was approached by a publishing house. A deeply personal work, and for the era quite scandalous, Out of this Century describes Guggenheim's love life in great detail. While many speculate that Guggenheim somewhat exaggerated the tales of her many lovers in her book, her thinly-veiled pseudonyms did nothing to disguise the identities of those she discussed. In his biography Art Lover Anton Gill commented that "those maligned would find no protection under their noms à clef, since they were so close everyone would immediately make the connection … if anyone failed to, the photographs included in the book left no room for doubt." Most critics attacked the book as being stylistically and morally lacking, but the memoirs sold reasonably well.
Life in Venice
The end of World War II also marked the end of the art world as it had been. The originators of the modern art movements were aging or dying; their heyday was over. The European artists who had moved to the United States during the war slowly returned to Europe. A return visit to Venice in summer 1946 convinced Guggenheim to head back to Europe as well. After her New York gallery's closure in 1947, she settled in Venice, finding a permanent home there, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, in 1948. That year, she also exhibited her collection in Venice, suitably shocking a populace accustomed to Renaissance art. By this time, her collection had very nearly reached its final form. Over the remaining decades of her life, Guggenheim bought only a few pieces as her interest in the changing contemporary art lessened and prices on all art rose. (Despite her personal wealth, Guggenheim was notoriously thrifty—in some cases, outright thrift turned to outright stinginess.)
Both locally and internationally known artists and writers as diverse as artist Marc Chagall, Hollywood actor Paul Newman, and American Southern author Truman Capote continued to visit Guggenheim in Venice. Sometimes feeling overwhelmed with visitors, Guggenheim became increasingly concerned for her privacy, although in the early 1950s she opened her home with its collection to the general public on three afternoons a week. "Some people," she noted in her memoirs "think that I should be included as a sight." However, Guggenheim lived remarkably quietly in Venice, dedicating herself more and more to the care of her collection, daily gondola trips through her adopted hometown, and her brood of Lhasa Apsos dogs. In 1960, she published a second and less scandalous volume of her memoirs, entitled Confessions of an Art Collector.
Guggenheim's collection left her palazzo for two major exhibitions in the 1960s, the first in 1965 at London's Tate Museum and the second in 1969 at New York City's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. At the time of the 1969 exhibition, Guggenheim agreed to donate her collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation upon her death on the condition that the collection would remain intact in Venice and would be recognized as hers. The Foundation assumed responsibility for both the collection and for Guggenheim's palazzo.
Final Years and Legacy
In the early 1970s, Guggenheim, by then nearly 75, truly began her withdrawal from the world. Her art collecting ceased, her social circle dwindled as friends aged and died, and even the numbers of her dogs declined as she quit replacing pets that died. In 1974, her collection was shown at Paris's Louvre to great success. As the decade progressed, Guggenheim's health faded; she at last died on December 23, 1979 at the age of 86. She was cremated shortly thereafter and her ashes buried in her palazzo's garden near those of her beloved dogs. Within days, her palazzo was again opened to the public as the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, under the management of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. To this day, the collection can be seen in her former home, still complete as it was at the time of her death.
Dearborn, Mary V., Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim, Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
Gill, Anton, Art Lover: A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim, HarperCollins, 2002.
Guggenheim, Peggy, Out of this Century: Confessions of an Art Addict, Anchor Books, 1980.
Unger, Irwin and Debi Unger, The Guggenheims: A Family History, HarperCollins, 2005.
"American National Biography Online: Peggy Guggenheim," http:www.anb.org (January 7, 2006).
"Peggy Guggenheim Collection: Peggy's Biography" http://www.guggenheim-venice.it/English/ (January 7, 2006).