Peggy Guggenheim - biography
Marguerite "Peggy" Guggenheim (August 26, 1898 – December 23, 1979) was an American art collector. Born to a wealthy New York City family, she was the daughter of Benjamin Guggenheim, who went down with the Titanic in 1912 and the niece of Solomon R. Guggenheim, who would establish the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Peggy's father was of Swiss-German Jewish origin, and her mother Jewish, German, and Dutch.
Inheritance, involvement in the art/writing community
At the age of 21, Peggy Guggenheim inherited a small fortune of 2.5 million dollars. This would be roughly 20 million in today's money. Guggenheim's father, Benjamin Guggenheim died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic and he had not amassed the fortune of his siblings, therefore her inheritance was far less than the vast wealth of her cousins.
She was a clerk in an avant-garde bookstore when she first became enamored with the members of the bohemian artistic community. In 1920 she went to live in Paris, France. Once there, she became friendly with avant-garde writers and artists, many of whom were living in poverty in the Montparnasse quarter of the city. Man Ray photographed her, and was, along with Constantin Brancusi and Marcel Duchamp, a friend whose art she promoted.
She became close friends with writer Natalie Barney and artist Romaine Brooks, and was a regular at Barney's stylish salon. She met Djuna Barnes during this time, and in time became her friend and patron. Barnes wrote her best-known novel, Nightwood, while staying at the Devonshire country manor, 'Hayford Hall', that Guggenheim had rented for two summers.
Collecting, before World War II
In 1938, she opened a gallery for modern art in London featuring Jean Cocteau and began to collect works of art. After the outbreak of World War II, she purchased as much abstract and Surrealist art as possible.
Peggy Guggenheim opened the gallery Guggenheim Jeune in London in January 1938 — the name being quite ingeniously chosen to associate the epitome of a gallery, the French Bernheim Jeune, with the name of her own well known family. The gallery on 30 Cork Street, next to Roland Penrose's and E. L. T. Mesens' show-case for the Surrealist movement, the London Gallery, proved to be quite successful, thanks to many friends who gave advice and who helped run the gallery. Marcel Duchamp, whom she had known since the early 1920s, when she lived in Paris with her first husband Laurence Vail, was taken on to introduce Peggy Guggenheim to the art world; it was through him that she met many artists during her frequent visits to Paris. He taught her about contemporary art and styles, and he conceived several of the exhibitions held at Guggenheim Jeune.
The gallery's opening show was dedicated to Jean Cocteau. It was followed by exhibitions on Wassily Kandinsky (his first one-man-show in England), Yves Tanguy, Wolfgang Paalen and several other well known and some lesser-known artists. Peggy Guggenheim also held group exhibitions of sculpture and collage, with the participation of the now classic moderns Antoine Pevsner, Henry Moore, Henri Laurens, Alexander Calder, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Constantin Brancusi, Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, George Braque and Kurt Schwitters. She also greatly admired the work of John Tunnard (1900–1971) and is credited with his discovery in mainstream international modernism.
Plans for a museum
When Peggy Guggenheim realised that her gallery, although well received had made an actual loss of £600 in the first year, she decided to take up this idea and spend the money in a much more practical way. A museum for contemporary arts was exactly the institution she could see herself supporting. Most certainly on her mind were also the adventures of her uncle, Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York, who, with the help and encouragement of Hilla Rebay, had created the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation two years earlier. The main aim of this foundation had been to collect and to further the production of abstract art, resulting in the opening of the Museum of Non-objective Painting (from 1952: The Solomon R Guggenheim Museum) earlier in 1939 on East 54th Street in Manhattan. Peggy Guggenheim closed Guggenheim Jeune with a farewell party on 22 June 1939, at which colour portrait photographs by Gisèle Freund were projected on the walls. She started making plans for a Museum of Modern Art in London together with the English art historian and art critic Herbert Read. She set aside $40,000 for the museum's running costs. However, these funds were soon overstretched with the organisers' ambitions.
In August 1939, Peggy Guggenheim left for Paris to negotiate loans for the first exhibition. In her luggage was a list drawn up by Herbert Read for this occasion. Shortly after her departure the Second World War broke out, and the events following 1 September 1939 made her abandon the scheme, willingly or not.
She then "decided now to buy paintings by all the painters who were on Herbert Read's list. Having plenty of time and all the museum's funds at my disposal, I put myself on a regime to buy one picture a day." When finished, she had acquired ten Picassos, forty Ernsts, eight Mirós, four Magrittes, three Man Rays, three Dalís, one Klee, one Wolfgang Paalen and one Chagall among others. In the meantime, she had also made new plans and in April 1940 had rented a large space in the Place Vendôme as a new home for her museum.
A few days before the Germans reached Paris, Peggy Guggenheim had to abandon her plans for a Paris museum, and fled to the south of France, from where, after months of safeguarding her collection and artist friends, she left Europe for New York in the summer of 1941. There, in the following year, she opened a new gallery which actually was in part a museum. It was called The Art of This Century Gallery. Three of the four galleries were dedicated to Cubism, Surrealism and Kinetic art, with only the fourth, the front room, being a commercial gallery.
As a result of her interest in new artists she was instrumental in advancing the careers of many important modern artists, including the American painter Jackson Pollock and William Congdon, the Austrian surrealist Wolfgang Paalen, the sound poet Ada Verdun Howell and the German painter Max Ernst, whom she married in December 1941.
The collection, after World War II
Following World War II — and her 1946 divorce from Max Ernst — she closed The Art of This Century Gallery in 1947, and returned to Europe; deciding to live in Venice, Italy. In 1948, she was invited to exhibit her collection in the disused Greek Pavilion of the Venice Biennale and eventually established herself in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal.
Her collection became one of the few European collections of modern art to promote a significant amount of works by Americans.
By the early 1960s, Peggy Guggenheim had stopped collecting art and began to concentrate on presenting what she already owned. She loaned out her collection to museums throughout Europe and America, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, which was named after her uncle. Eventually, she decided to donate her large home and her collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation on her death.
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is one of the most important museums in Italy for European and American art of the first half of the 20th century. Pieces in her collection embrace Cubism, Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.
Peggy Guggenheim lived in Venice until her death in Padua, Italy after a stroke. She is interred in the garden (later: Nasher Sculpture Garden) of her home, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni (Inside the Peggy Guggenheim Museum), next to her beloved dogs.
Private life / gossip
Starting in late December 1937, she and Samuel Beckett had a brief affair. Peggy Guggenheim's first marriage was to Laurence Vail, a Dada sculptor and writer with whom she had two children, Michael Sindbad and Pegeen Vail Guggenheim. They divorced following his affair with writer Kay Boyle, whom he later married. She married her second husband, Max Ernst, in 1941 and divorced him in 1946. In her autobiography, she claims to have had affairs with numerous artists and in return many others, including artists, have claimed affairs with her. She is even mentioned as having had affairs with fictional characters, for example William Boyd's Nat Tate.
One affair that occurred with little knowledge was that between Guggenheim and her next door neighbour in Venice, the late manager of The Who rock band Christopher 'Kit' Lambert. Peggy had known Lambert's father Constant Lambert, the classical composer and a close friend of Cocteau. Kit Lambert later recalled he had been fascinated by Guggenheim. He purposely purchased a villa next to Guggenheim's on the Grand Canal. For a while the two became close friends and then lovers over a period of six months. Guggenheim finally ended the affair with the parting words to Lambert which he often repeated. His heroin and drug consumption horrified Peggy and she confronted Lambert one morning to tell him their affair was over. "Quite simply", said Peggy, "I just cannot afford you !".
She has eight grandchildren: Clovis, Mark, Karole and Julia Vail, from her son, and Fabrice, David and Nicolas Hélion and Sandro Rumney from her daughter. She also has seven great nieces and nephews: Gabrielle, Chantal, Maya, Daniel, Michael, and John.
Peggy Guggenheim is portrayed by Amy Madigan in the movie Pollock (2000), directed by Ed Harris, based on the life of Jackson Pollock.
A play by Lanie Robertson based on Peggy Guggenheim's life, Woman Before a Glass, opened at the Promenade Theatre on Broadway, New York on March 10, 2005. It is a one woman show, which focuses on Peggy Guggenheim's later life. Mercedes Ruehl plays Peggy Guggenheim. Ruehl received an Obie award for her performance.
In Bethan Roberts' first play for radio, "My Own Private Gondolier", Peggy Guggenheim's troubled daughter, Pegeen, leaves her three children behind when she travels to Venice to spend the summer with her mother. Pegeen is in retreat from a marriage that has failed. She is determined to be an artist, and she shuts herself up in the dank basement, trying to paint. Meanwhile, her mother, Peggy, is much more concerned with the English sculptor who has come to visit; she wants a piece of his work to add to her collection and will use everything at her disposal to achieve her aim. She'll even try to inveigle her daughter into the plan if she thinks it will get her what she wants. Peggy is well known as a collector of men, as well as art. As the summer progresses, and the strains between mother and daughter grow, it's only Gianni, Peggy's personal Gondolier, who can provide a welcome diversion. The play was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Oct. 19, 2010. Peggy Guggenheim was played by Fiona Shaw. Pegeen Vail Guggenheim was played by Hattie Morahan Jack.