Peggy Guggenheim
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Peggy Guggenheim

Thu 27 Oct 2011 12:00 AM


Marguerite Guggenheim, known to all as Peggy, was one of the most important collectors of modern art of the twentieth century. With a sharp and refined eye, she collected works from the major art movements of the era ranging from 1910 until the 1960s, covering abstract art, cubism, dada and surrealism as well as U.S. abstract expressionism. She stopped short, however, of pop art, op art and minimalism. The museum she founded to house her collection is one of the finest private museums of modern art in the world and exhibits pieces by, amongst others, Picasso, Cocteau, Brancusi, Dali, Kandinsky, Duchamp, Ernst, Moore and Giacometti. It also displays works by artists she discovered and supported financially, most notably Jackson Pollock, whom she considered her ‘most honorable achievement.’


Born in New York on August 26, 1898, the second of three sisters, Peggy was the granddaughter of a Jewish copper magnate and the daughter of a millionaire who perished in the sinking of the Titanic. Describing herself as a ‘poor’ Guggenheim because her father died before he had time to amass the great wealth that his brothers did, Peggy inherited ‘only’ 900,000 U.S. dollars, half in 1912 from her grandfather’s estate and half in 1939 from her mother’s.


After what she said was an ‘excessively unhappy’ childhood, in 1920, Peggy holidayed in Europe with her eccentric and controlling mother. In Paris, she renewed an acquaintance with American writer and painter Laurence Vail, fell in love and, in 1923, married him against her mother’s wishes. They had two children, son Sindbad and daughter Pegeen, but by the time she left him in 1928 because he drank and was violent to her, he had already introduced her to his world of avant-garde artists and writers.


When she found the love of her life, tormented British writer John Holms, the couple moved to England in 1932. Devastated by his sudden death in 1934, Peggy, aged 39, decided she needed a career and in January 1938 opened the Guggenheim Jeune gallery in London with an inaugural show of works by French painter Jean Cocteau. The gallery lost money and Peggy tired of capricious artists, so she closed it, deciding instead to open a contemporary art museum. With a list compiled by art critic Herbert Read, she determined to ‘buy a picture a day’ and, already being acquainted with some of the artists, she purchased their pieces at bargain prices. (Some of these works are featured in the current exhibition in Lucca; see box this page.)


In 1941, she had to put her museum plans on hold. Forced to flee occupied France, Peggy, her collection and German artist Max Ernst (briefly her second husband), decamped to New York where she opened a gallery, called The Art of This Century Gallery.


Soon after the war was over, she closed up shop and, in 1949, returned to Europe, this time settling in Venice, where she remained for the rest of her life. She bought Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, nicknamed Palazzo Nonfinito (the ‘unfinished palace’), and opened it to the public. The site of her protégé Jackson Pollock’s first Italian exhibition in 1950, the palace proved the perfect place for her to moor her personal gondola and motorboat. Its large garden, a rare commodity in Venice, was ideal for her numerous lhasa apso dogs and for the stone throne she erected in it (the perfect place for her to be photographed).


By the early 1960s, Peggy was focusing on exhibiting her collection rather than adding to it. She loaned pieces to museums such as the Tate Gallery in London in 1964 and 1965, and in 1969 to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Concerned the collection would be broken up after her death, she donated it and her home to her uncle’s trust, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in 1976. Typically, her bequest of 263 major works had conditions: the Manhattan-based museum could hold exhibitions of the works, but their permanent home had to remain her Venetian palace, especially during tourist season.


Peggy’s personal life was dramatic and sometimes tragic. Tall and slim with a potato nose and raven-black hair that she dyed well into her sixties, Peggy dressed fashionably but usually wore smudged crimson lipstick, dangling earrings and silver nail polish. A paradox, she seemed an indifferent mother yet never recovered from the suicide of her troubled artist daughter in 1967. Generous in helping friends and in subsidising struggling artists, at home she was stingy, notorious for serving little food and cheap wine. Even her son once remarked that ‘a can of sardines goes a long way’. Constantly in search of love, in reply to a reporter who asked her how many husbands she had had, she quipped ‘D’you mean my own, or other people’s?’ Yet, regardless of the many men in her life, including such famous men as Samuel Beckett and Yves Tanguy, she was a lonely woman.


In increasingly frail health, Peggy died of a stroke at 80 at the hospital at Camposampiero, near Padua, on December 23, 1979. Her ashes rest in the Nasher Sculpture Garden at her palazzo, alongside the grave of her beloved dogs. Living testament to her one true love remains her collection.



Carte rivelatrici: I tesori nascosti della Collezione Peggy Guggenheim

(Revealing Papers: Hidden Treasures of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection)

Lu.C.C.A. Lucca Center of Contemporary Art via della Fratta 36, Lucca

Until Janaury 15, 2012


The exhibition features works on paper by some of the artists represented in the Peggy Guggenheim collection: Alechinsky, Arp, Calder, De Kooning, Ernst, Fontana, Hundertwasser, Kandinsky, Kupka, Man Ray, Masson, Matta, Mondrian, Moore, Picasso, Richter, Rivera, Sironi, Tancredi, Tanguy, Tobey and Vedova. For more information, see





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