Peggy Guggenheim’s career belongs in the history of 20th-century art. Peggy used to say that it was her duty to protect the art of her own time, and she dedicated half of her life to this mission, as well as to the creation of the museum that still carries her name.
Peggy Guggenheim was born in New York on August 26, 1898, the daughter of Benjamin Guggenheim and Florette Seligman. Benjamin Guggenheim was one of seven brothers who, with their father, Meyer (of Swiss origin), created a family fortune in the late 19th century from the mining and smelting of metals, especially silver, copper, and lead. The Seligmans were a leading banking family. In April 1912 her father died on the Titanic.
In her early 20s, Peggy worked at the Sunwise Turn bookshop in New York and became involved in New York’s intellectual and artistic circles, where she met the man who would eventually become her first husband, Laurence Vail. Vail was a writer and Dada collagist of great talent. In 1921 Peggy Guggenheim traveled to Europe, and soon found herself at the heart of Parisian bohemia and American expatriate society. Many of her acquaintances of the time, such as Constantin Brancusi, Djuna Barnes, and Marcel Duchamp, were to become lifelong friends. Though she remained on good terms with Vail for the rest of his life, she left him in 1928 for an English intellectual, John Holms, who was the greatest love of her life.
In 1937, encouraged by her friend Peggy Waldman, Peggy decided to open an art gallery in London. The opening of the Guggenheim Jeune gallery in January 1938 marked the beginning of a career that would significantly affect the course of postwar art. Her friend Samuel Beckett urged her to dedicate herself to contemporary art as it was “a living thing,” and Marcel Duchamp introduced her to artists and taught her, as she put it, “the difference between abstract and Surrealist art.” The gallery’s first show presented works by Jean Cocteau, while the second was the first one-man show of Vasily Kandinsky in England.
In 1939, tired of her gallery, Peggy conceived “the idea of opening a modern museum in London,” with her friend Herbert Read as its director. From the start, the museum was to be formed on historical principles, and a list of all the artists that should be represented, drawn up by Read and later revised by Marcel Duchamp and Nellie van Doesburg, was to become the basis of her collection.
Between 1939 and 1940, in the midst of World War II, Peggy busily acquired works for the future museum, keeping her word to “buy a picture a day.” Some of the masterpieces of her collection, such as works by Francis Picabia, Georges Braque, Salvador Dalí, and Piet Mondrian, were bought at that time. She astonished Fernand Léger by buying his Men in the City on the day that Hitler invaded Norway. She acquired Brancusi’s Bird in Space as the Germans approached Paris, and only then decided to return to her native New York. In July 1941, Peggy fled Nazi-occupied France together with Max Ernst, who was to become her second husband a few months later (they divorced in 1943).
Peggy immediately began looking for a location for her modern art museum, while she continued to acquire works for her collection. In October 1942 she opened her museum/gallery, Art of This Century. Designed by the Austrian architect Frederick Kiesler, the gallery was composed of extraordinarily innovative exhibition rooms and soon became the most stimulating venue for contemporary art in New York City. It was there that Peggy exhibited her collection of Cubist, abstract, and Surrealist art, which was at that time nearly as complete as the collection that is currently housed in Venice.
She held temporary exhibitions of leading European artists, and of several then-unknown young American artists such as Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, Mark Rothko, David Hare, Janet Sobel, Robert de Niro Sr., Clyfford Still, and Jackson Pollock, the “star” of the gallery, who was given his first show by Peggy late in 1943. From July 1943 Peggy supported Pollock with a monthly stipend and actively promoted and sold his paintings. She commissioned his largest painting, a mural, which she later gave to the University of Iowa. She and her collection played a vital intermediary role in the development of America’s first art movement of international importance—Abstract Expressionism. It was in her gallery that these artists encountered Surrealism, one of their principal sources. Together with her friend and assistant Howard Putzel, Peggy encouraged and supported this nascent New York avant-garde.
In 1947 Peggy decided to return to Europe, where her collection was shown for the first time at the 1948 Venice Biennale, giving artists such as Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko their first European exposure. The presence of Cubist, abstract, and Surrealist art made the pavilion the most coherent survey of modernism to have been presented in Italy. In 1948 Peggy bought Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal in Venice, where she took up residence. In 1949 she held an exhibition of sculptures in the garden, and in 1951 she opened her collection to the public. During her 30 years in Venice, Peggy Guggenheim continued to collect works of art and to support American and European artists alike. In 1962 Peggy Guggenheim was made an Honorary Citizen of Venice.
In 1969 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York invited Peggy Guggenheim to show her collection there, and it was on that occasion that she resolved to donate her palace and works of art to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Peggy died at the age of 81 on December 23, 1979. Her ashes were placed in a corner of the garden of Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, next to the place where she buried her beloved dogs. Since then, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection has grown to become one of the finest small museums of modern art in the world.