Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979)
Peggy Guggenheim was a pioneer, devoting her life to the collection and exhibition of contemporary art. Amid the turmoil of marriage and war, she vowed to ‘buy a picture a day’, and she leaves an astounding collection as her legacy.
Peggy was born in New York in 1898 to wealthy German-Jewish aristocrats Benjamin Guggenheim and Florette Seligman. She grew up in the lap of luxury in Manhattan with her two sisters, their father one of seven brothers who, with their father, created a family fortune in mining. At 13, her world fell apart after her father died heroically aboard the SS Titanic in April 1912 and the family was left to rely on the charity of their Uncle Solomon, who later opened the Guggenheim Museum in New York.
Peggy first became involved in the city’s artistic and intellectual circles whilst working in a bookshop in her early 20s. In 1921 she traveled to Europe, finding herself at the heart of Parisian bohemia and making lifelong friends such as Constantin Brancusi, Djuna Barnes and Marcel Duchamp. Samuel Beckett encouraged her to dedicate herself to contemporary art as it was “a living thing”, and Duchamp taught her the difference between abstract and Surrealist art.
Inspired by the people in her life and the radical art emerging all around her, Peggy opened the Guggenheim Jeune Gallery in London in 1938. She soon began to conceive the idea of a modern museum of art based on historical principles. In the midst of WWII, Peggy busily acquired works for her museum, including pieces by Picabia, Braque, Dali, Mondrian and Brauner. She astonished Fernand Léger by buying his Men in the City on the day that Hitler invaded Norway. In 1941, Peggy fled Paris with her soon-to-be husband Max Ernst.
In 1942, Peggy opened her museum/gallery in New York, naming it Art of This Century. On the opening night she wore one Tanguy earring and another by Calder to show her “impartiality between Surrealist and abstract art". The museum soon became the most stimulating venue for contemporary art in New York City. She held temporary exhibitions of leading European artists as well as unknown young American artists, such as Motherwell, Rothko, Sobel and Baziotes. She gave Jackson Pollock his first show in 1943, and continued to actively promote and sell his paintings for many years.
Peggy and her collection played a vital role in the development of Abstract Expressionism, America’s first art movement of international importance. In 1947, she returned to Europe. Her collection was shown for the first time at the 1948 Venice Biennale, giving many artists 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.
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, leaving behind one of the finest small museums of modern art in the world.
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Click here for information on Peggy Guggenheim from the website of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.
Last updated 26 October 2010
Listen to Peggy Guggenheim talking about her art in a 1969 radio interview
When Peggy Guggenheim visited New York City in 1969, to see her personal art collection displayed, for the first time, at the Guggenheim Museum, she also recorded an interview with radio station WNYC's Ruth Bowman for the 1960s-era arts program, "Views on Art."
Peggy Guggenheim on the steps of the Greek Pavilion, where she exhibited her collection, 24th Venice Biennale, with Interior (1945, unknown location) by her daughter Pegeen Vail; 1948
© The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Photo Archivio CameraphotoEpoche, Gift ofCassa di Risparmio di Venezia, 2005