Another birthday and another incredible woman to celebrate today, Peggy Guggenheim. If you get a chance to go to Venice, be sure to visit her museum there. It is truly magical.
Marguerite (Peggy) Guggenheim was born in New York on August 26, 1898, the daughter of Benjamin Guggenheim and Florette Seligman. She was born into an extremely wealthy family. Her father’s family made their fortune in smelting metals and her mother’s family was in banking. When Peggy was 14, her father died on the RMS Titanic and when she was 21 she inherited $2.5 million dollars in a trust from him. Ever the curious young woman, Peggy picked up a job at the avant-garde bookstore, Sunwise Twane, in order to break free from her wealthy, socialite friends.
During her early twenties, Peggy flung herself into the intellectual circle of New York and Paris, discovering the works of Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse and Georgia O’Keefe and befriending Scott Fitzgerald, Marcel Duchamp and the writer Laurence Vail. She married Vail and together they had two children, Michael and Pegeen. Though Vail and Peggy discovered the creative circles of Paris together, their relationship did not last and in 1928 they divorced. She went on to have many love affairs with various artists and not long after her divorce she married, John Holmes, a war hero and writer. Their relationship was short-lived and they divorced.
In 1938, inspired by the recent surrealist exhibits she’d seen, Peggy decided to open an art gallery in London. The Guggeinheim Jeune Gallery was supported by her closest friends, including Samuel Beckett who encouraged her to pursue modern and contemporary art and Marcel Duchamp who educated her on the difference between Abstract and Surrealism. Her gallery was a great success and featured work by artists such as Jean Cocteau and Vasily Kandinsky. But Peggy yearned for more and decided to open a modern art museum in London, boldly promising to buy one work of art a day for her new venture. This promise got her quite a bit of notoriety as it was made during WW2. Peggy famously purchased works by Picasso, Miro, Dali, Mondrian and more, all while the German army advanced upon Europe.
Forced to flee Europe because of the war, Peggy moved back to New York with the Surrealist artist, Max Ernst (whom she later married and divorced). She opened her museum-gallery, Art of This Century in 1942, highlighting many unknown American artists including Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. Peggy supported Pollock by selling his works and giving him monthly handouts.
After the war ended, Peggy discovered Venice when her collection was featured at the Venice Biennale. It is here that she is credited with introducing Europe to both Rothko and Pollock and having the most coherent survey of modern art in Europe at the time. A year later, Peggy purchased Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal and made it her home. In 1949 she held an exhibition of sculptures in her garden, and in 1951 she opened her entire collection to the public. During her 30 years in Venice, Peggy continued to collect works of art and to support modern art and artists. In 1969, she donated her collection to her cousin, Solomon R. Guggenheim’s Foundation and on the 23rd of December, 1979 she passed away. Her ashes remain at Palazzo Venier dei Leoni as does her museum.
“I took advice from none but the best. I listened, how I listened! That’s how I finally became my own expert.”