Peggy Guggenheim

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Podcast Transcript

In the 20th century, there was one woman who put herself in the center of the world of modern art. 

She didn’t just collect art. She befriended starving artists, she discovered many unknown artists, and she had affairs with many other artists. 

Her obsession with modern art resulted in one of the greatest collections of modern art ever assembled in the 20th century. 

Learn more about Peggy Guggenheim and her obsession with modern art on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The woman known to the world as Peggy Guggenheim was born Marguerite Guggenheim in 1898 in New York City.

To say that she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth would be an understatement.

Her father was Benjamin Guggenheim, who was the son of Meyer Guggenheim, who established the Guggenheim family fortune. 

Meyer Guggenheim was a Jewish immigrant from Switzerland who made a fortune in mining and smelting.  By the time Peggy was born, the Guggenhemis were one of the wealthiest families in the world. 

That was just her father’s side of the family. Her mother was Florette Seligman, who was the daughter of Joseph Seligman, the founder of J. & W. Seligman & Co., one of the largest investment banks in the United States in the 19th century. 

When Peggy was 14 years old, her father was killed on the Titanic. As you can guess, he was one of those guys dressed in a tuxedo going drinking champagne casualties on the Titanic, not of the people stuck in third-class casualties on the Titanic.

Her uncle was Solomon Guggenheim, who was also extremely wealthy and who established the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, which built the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. 

For the record, while Peggy Guggenheim was heavily involved in the world of art and shared the same name as her uncle, she traveled a very different path than that of her uncle and his foundation, as you will soon see.

When Peggy turned 21, she inherited $2.5 million dollars. It was simultaneously a lot of money and not as much as it could have been. Her father, Benjamin, wasn’t as successful as his brother Solomon, so she didn’t receive nearly as much as some of her cousins. 

However, she received this money in 1919 when a million dollars really meant something. Adjusted for inflation, it would be about $44 million dollars today. 

Not too shabby for someone who is 21.

Despite not at all needing the money, she took a job as a clerk at a bookstore in Manhattan known as the Sunwise Turn. The Sunwise Turn was an avant-garde bookstore, and it was her job at the bookstore that introduced her to the community of avant-garde artists in New York. 

Having gotten a taste of this world, she soon set off to live in Paris in 1920. 

In Paris in the Montparnasse, she inserted herself into a community of modern artists, most of whom were living like stereotypical starving artists. 

There, she befriended the likes of the French Dadaist artist Marcel Duchamp and the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncu?i.

She became friends with other American women artists who came to Paris, such as the writer Natalie Barney and painter and writer Romaine Brooks.

She also befriended the surrealist painters Yves Tanguy and Salvador Dali.

She joined the salons in Paris, where artists would discuss their theories of art and their projects. She was photographed by the photographer Man Ray and dressed by the legendary designer Paul Poiret.

She rented a farmhouse In Devon, England, in the summers where artists would come to work. The author Djuna Barnes was staying with her when she wrote her book Nightwood.

In 1922, she married the Dadaist artist Laurence Vail, but the marriage only lasted until 1928. 

Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Peggy Guggenheim became a staple in modern art circles. She wrote her own autobiography during this period, which was originally titled Out of This Century.  

I should note that despite being a central figure in the world of modern art, she was not an artist herself and never showed any desire to become one. 

Despite never having been formally trained in art, she became a voracious collector starting in 1935. She relied more on instinct than anything else in assessing what she would purchase. Her first purchase was a sculpture from Jean Arp titled Head and Shell.

She later was reported to have said, “the instant I felt it, I wanted to own it.”

She also had affairs, many affairs, with many of the artists she met during the period. 

Things changed for Guggenheim with the onset of the Second World War. 

As a Jewish woman in Europe, the climate was such that she thought it best to leave, so she moved to London, where she opened up her first art gallery in 1938. Her mother had died in 1937, leaving her another large inheritance. 

Her gallery was called Guggenheim Jeune, which was a purposeful attempt to associate herself with the Paris Gallery of a similar name, Bernheim-Jeune. 

Her decision to open a gallery was prompted by the Irish novelist Samuel Beckett, whom she had an affair with, who said to her that “one should be interested in art of one’s time.” Something she took as a personal motto.

She was assisted in the planning for the gallery by her long-time friend, Marcel Duchamp. 

Her first showing was of drawings by the French artist Jean Cocteau, who later went on to achieve fame as a film director. 

She held multiple showings, sometimes with multiple artists on a theme and sometimes with individual artists. The artists she showcased were like a who’s who of modern art. She would always purchase at least one work from every show she held.

However, the gallery didn’t last long. After losing money in her first year, and in no small part prompted by the activities of her uncle back in New York, she made the decision to start a museum of modern art in Europe. 

With the start of the war in Europe in 1939, her collecting went into overdrive. She made trips to Paris and focused on purchasing paintings by Surrealists and other modern artists.

Given the antipathy of the Nazis to modern art, she was able to buy an enormous amount of art during this period for extremely low prices. During her 1939 trip to France, she spent $40,000 on art, averaging one purchase per day, on a collection that is today worth billions of dollars. 

The German invasion of France in 1940 scuttled her plans for opening her museum in Paris. Moreover, the Louvre refused to protect her art collection as it did for other galleries. She literally had to have her collection packed and labeled as “household goods” hidden with plates and furniture under an assumed non-Jewish name and shipped by sea back to the United States, where there was a serious risk of the entire collection being lost in a U-boat attack.

In 1941, she reluctantly moved back to New York after securing the safety of her art collection and the transportation of many of her artist friends. 

In 1941, she also married the German artist Max Ernst in what was to be her second and final marriage.

In New York, in 1942, she opened up another gallery on 57th Street called The Art of This Century. It was intended to be an outpost for European avant-garde artists in the United States while the war was being conducted. 

However, she soon began championing American artists she discovered while she was in New York. Some of the artists she supported included Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Wolfgang Paalen, Clyfford Still, and her husband, Max Ernst. Her discovery of Jackson Pollock and his subsequent rise to fame was one of her proudest accomplishments. 

By the time she opened her New York gallery in 1942, she had assembled one of the world’s most impressive collections of modern art in a span of just seven years. 

She soon found herself in an open feud with Hilla Rebay, the artist who was the curator of the Solomon Guggenheim Museum, which had opened in 1937, albeit not in the building that currently exists.

They had serious disagreements about art. Rebay once told her, “Your gallery will be the last one for our foundation to use if ever the need should force us to use a sales gallery. You will soon find you are propagating mediocrity, if not trash.” 

The end of the war changed things once again for Peggy. She divorced Max Ernst in 1946, closed her New York gallery, and moved back to Europe.

This time, however, she didn’t move to Paris or London, where she had lived before. Rather, she moved to Venice, Italy. 

She purchased the 18th-century villa, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, which was situated on the Grand Canal. Her new home became a showcase for her art collection.

While in Venice, she brought the works of American artists to the attention of the European art community. She had, at this time, become the bridge between the American and European worlds of art.

She became a fixture in Venice, developing a reputation as an eccentric, rich American art collector. She was famous for her butterfly sunglasses and her Lhasa Apsos dogs.

In the 1960s, she began to shift her focus from collecting to the display and preservation of her collection. She began loaning parts of her collection out to other museums, and in 1969, after decades of conflict, she finally came to terms with the Guggenheim Museum in New York and lent them some of her collection for a showing. 

In 1976, at the age of 78, she signed over her collection and her house to the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation 

Peggy Guggenheim passed away from a stroke in 1979 at the age of 81. 

Despite having donated her collection to the Guggenheim Foundation, that did not mean that her entire collection was shipped back to New York. 

The Peggy Guggenheim Museum was opened in her house in Venice, and it is open to the public today. It remains perhaps the greatest collection of early 20th-century art in Europe and perhaps the entire world.

My interest in this story and the life of Peggy Guggenheim began when I visited the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice. I recommend it to anyone if you happen to be visiting. 

For someone who wasn’t herself an artist, Peggy Guggenheim played a central role in the discovery and promotion of many of the greatest artists of the 20th century. It wasn’t just a few artists. She had personal connections, sometimes extremely personal connections, with an enormous swath of the modern and avant-garde community throughout the 20th century.

The world of 20th-century art would have been completely different without Peggy Guggenheim.

For Peggy, art was actually an obsession. Her autobiography, which was originally titled Out of This Century, was later republished with the title Confessions of an Art Addict.

She was extremely open about her many affairs and was upfront about how she often began relationships simply because she wanted a piece of art. 

When asked about her obsession with art and her collection, she once responded,  “I am not an art collector. I am a museum.”