14 April 2010

Peggy Guggenheim, modernist gallery owner and patron

Marguerite Peggy Guggenheim was born 1898 in New York. As the second daughter of Benjamin Guggenheim and Florette Seligman, Peggy had a rather cultivated upbringing in New York. Peggy regularly visited Europe with her parents and two sisters, a very pleasant life until her father Benjamin tragically died on the Titanic in 1912.

Peggy Guggenheim, photographed by Man Ray in 1924

Eventually, at 21, Peggy inherited from her late father’s fortune. So her fabulous career in art was totally due to her share of her father’s estate (and later her share of her mother’s as well).

When Peggy was given the first of her money in 1919, she got herself to Paris as soon as she decently could. The expatriates there thought she was terrific. She married Laurence Vail, an American writer who loved the bohemian life of Paris as much as Our Peggy did. In 1928 the marriage was over and Peggy moved to London.

In 1938 she opened Guggenheim Jeune, a London gallery of modern art that celebrated the works of Jean Cocteau and Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp acted as a mentor for the rather inexperienced Miss Guggenheim and suggested to her that she should focus her energy on surrealist and other modernist art. The young gallery owner was delighted to display works by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro, Wassily Kandinsky, Henry Moore, Constantin Brancusi and of course Max Ernst.

By 1939, Peggy was organising herself for a Museum of Modern Art in London together with the English art historian/critic Herbert Read. She hot footed it to Paris to begin collecting work for the new Museum but the outbreak of war ruined the plans. Nonethless she did manage to buy 10 Picassos, 40 Ernsts, 8 Mirós, 4 Rene Magrittes, 3 Man Rays, 3 Dalís, plus one each from Paul Klee, Marc Chagall and Georges Braque.

Only days before the German invasion of 1941, this brave Jewish woman realised the danger she and her friends were in. She left Paris for New York with hundreds of works of art with which she would begin a new American gallery. Peggy travelled to New York with the German surrealist artist Max Ernst, whom she married in 1942 (and soon divorced).

In 1942, Peggy found a space to exhibit her collection. Her gallery-museum, Art of This Century, did well. It opened on 57th St in Oct 1942 and featured surrealists and cubists, Americans and European refugees. The gallery, designed by Frederick Kiesler, with concave walls, startled and intrigued visitors. Modern viewers can see a replica of the 1942 show called The Flight of European Artists from Hitler.

I am not certain about Peggy’s relationship with Jackson Pollock. Certainly he was a young artist who suddenly found the art critics were discussing his work. One thing we know for certain is that Peggy commissioned a HUGE mural from Pollock for the entry of her new townhouse. Also in 1946, Robert De Niro had his first one-man exhibition at Peggy’s Art of this Century gallery, and did well.

Art of this Century in NY, 1942

In 1947 Peggy Guggenheim could not live outside Europe for another day. In May, she closed the gallery doors for good and moved to a rather lovely palazzo on Venice’s Grand Canal. The home must have become a bit of a home away from home for travelling wits, bohemians, artists and writers. She spent the rest of her life in Venice, devoting herself to her modernist art. In 1949 she held an exhibition of sculptures in the garden.

In 1951 Peggy formally opened her Venetian home as a museum. See from the contemporary photos that there were several Jackson Pollocks and Arshile Gorkys in the collection.

In 1965 Peggy’s collection travelled to the Tate Museum, and then in 1969 to her late Uncle Solomon Guggenheim’s Museum which had been established in New York. In 1974 the New York Guggenheim took over the running of the Venetian museum, acquiring the collection as well as the palazzo. Peggy Guggenheim died in her palazzo in Dec 1979, having lived a creative, productive and sometimes provocative life.  PollockstheBollocks said she lived her life as an art addict!

Guggenheim Museum in Venice

Today the New York Guggenheim continues to run the Peggy’s Venetian museum. The east wing houses early Cubist and other modernists including Picasso, Braque, Dalí and Miró. Out in the sculpture garden are pieces by Henry Moore and Jean Arp. Another wing hosts temporary exhibitions. For a wonderful array of photos on Peggy, the garden, her museum and its contents, see Farrago and Folly and Irenebrination: Notes on Art, Fashion and Style.


Hermes said...

Didn't know any of that, fascinating. And that picture by Man Ray - wow.

the foto fanatic said...

Thanks - I love this story! When we were last in NYC (in 2000 - our dollar was only buying US 48 cents!!!) we visited the Guggenheim and it was one of the highlights of our trip.

Another highlight was the Frick collection in the fabulous old mansion on 5th Ave.

Karena said...

Intriguing background on Peggy guggebheim. I have always wanted to read a biography of this fabulous art patron! Your site is a treasure.

Art by Karena

I have an interview up on my site with artist Rober Anders that is fascinating.

Emm said...

Gosh, that is fascinating. I would have loved to have visited Art of this Century! I did not know about the Venetian gallery - will have to add it to my "to-see" list.

Hels said...

Thanks Karena :)

If you would like to read Peggy Guggenheim's own words, read Out of This Century which was published in 1946.

If you think autobiographies are self serving and you prefer to read a more objective biographer, read Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim by Mary Dearborn, 2004.

Hels said...

the foto fanatic
I also loved the two Frick houses, one in Pittsburgh and the larger one in New York. We must meet there for some art talk and some white wine one northern summer :)

Frick was a conservative art collector himself and he was also smart enough to take great professional advice on the art market. This was to his credit.

Guggenheim was a risk taker and a modernist, even when modernism wasn't yet popular. She learned lots from Marcel Duchamp but she also took large risks with her own patronage and collecting. This was to her very great credit.

Dainty Ballerina said...

I love the earrings story about Peggy, which I first heard at the Guggenheim in Venice; both Tanguy & Alexander Calder designed earrings for her, and she famously wore one from each pair at the opening of her New York Gallery in 1942 to demonstrate her equal appreciation of both surrealist & abstract art.

mosie said...

Dear Hels, thanks so much for this. i've visited the venice museum and now have an even greater appreciation of its history.

Hels said...

Dainty, that is a wonderful story about Our Peggy. Not only did she look after her love life by being nice to two up and coming artists. She also showed an equal passion for the two main streams of modern art.

The opening of her New York Gallery in 1942 was a pivotal point, I would imagine, at least for the American audience. She had no way of knowing whether Art of This Century would be a success or not.

It was.

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Margaret said...

What a fascinating character! I really enjoyed this post. The only thing I'd known about her before was her penchant for outlandish sunglasses. Great Man Ray photo too, by the way!

Anonymous said...

As far as I've been able to find out, Peggy Guggenheim made great efforts to help a number of artists escape the Nazis. In Lisbon they stayed at the best hotel and drank the finest wine. But with the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars at her disposal, she did not rescue even one child.

Hels said...


I think it is true that Guggenheim got herself out of Paris and into the safety of New York before the Germans invaded. She didn't help anyone before saving herself ..and Ernst.

It was only once she set up in New York that she became heroic. For those art refugees from Europe who arrived in New York City, Peggy Guggenheim became their mother, patron and supporter at her Art of this Century gallery. In some cases, their survival and integration were thanks to Peggy.

Hels said...

Hermes, Emm, Margaret and Mosie

Next week (10th October 2015) I am publishing a review of Francine Prose's book "Peggy Guggenheim, The Shock of the Modern", Yale UP 2015. I think you bloggers will enjoy and be surprised by the new material.