PEGGY Guggenheim was born in New York on 26 August 1898, the daughter of Benjamin Guggenheim and Florette Seligman. Benjamin Guggenheim was one of seven brothers who, with their father, Meyer (of Swiss origin), created a family fortune in the late 19th century from the mining and smelting of metals, especially silver, copper and lead. The Seligmans were a leading banking family. Peggy grew up in New York. In April 1912 her father died heroically on the SS Titanic.
In 1921 Peggy traveled to Europe. Thanks to her husband Laurence Vail (the father of her two children Sindbad and Pegeen, who was an artist), Peggy soon found herself at the heart of Parisian bohème and American ex-patriot society. Many of her acquaintances of the time, such as Constantin Brancusi, Djuna Barnes and Marcel Duchamp, were to become lifelong friends. When in 1938, Peggy opened an art gallery in London, called Guggenheim Jeune, she was beginning, at 39 years old, a career which would significantly affect the course of post-war art. Her friend Samuel Beckett urged her to dedicate herself to contemporary art as it was “a living thing,” and Duchamp introduced her to artists and taught her, as she put it, “the difference between abstract and Surrealist art.” The first show presented works by Jean Cocteau, and the second was the first one-man show of Vasily Kandinsky in England.
In 1939 Peggy conceived “the idea of opening a modern museum in London,” with her friend Herbert Read as its director. The museum was to be formed on historical principles, and a list of artists that should be represented, drawn up by Read and later revised by Marcel Duchamp and Nellie van Doesburg, was to become the basis of her collection. In 1939-40, having abandoned her project for a museum in London, Peggy busily acquired works for her collection, keeping to her resolve to “buy a picture a day.” Some of the masterpieces, such as works by Georges Braque, Salvador Dalí, Piet Mondrian and Francis Picabia, were bought at that time. She astonished Fernand Léger by buying his Men in the City on the day that Hitler invaded Norway. She acquired Brancusi’s Bird in Space as the Germans approached Paris, and only then decided to flee the city. In July 1941 Peggy fled Nazi-occupied France and returned to her native New York, together with Sindbad, Pegeen and Laurence Vail (and his second wife Kay Boyle and their children), and Max Ernst, who was to become her second husband a few months later.
In October 1942 Peggy opened her museum/gallery Art of This Century. Designed by the Romanian-Austrian architect Frederick Kiesler, the gallery consisted of innovative exhibition rooms and soon became the most stimulating venue for contemporary art in New York City. Of the opening night, she wrote: “I wore one of my Tanguy earrings and one made by Calder in order to show my impartiality between Surrealist and Abstract Art." Peggy exhibited there her collection of Cubist, abstract and Surrealist art, which was already substantially that which we see today in Venice. She produced a remarkable catalogue, edited by André Breton, with a cover design by Ernst, and held temporary exhibitions of leading European artists, and of several then unknown young Americans such as Robert Motherwell, William Baziotes, Mark Rothko, David Hare, Richard Pousette-Dart, Robert de Niro Sr, Clyfford Still, and Jackson Pollock, the ‘star’ of the gallery, who was given his first show by Peggy late in 1943. From July 1943 Peggy actively promoted and sold his paintings. She commissioned his largest painting, Mural, which she later gave to the University of Iowa.
Pollock and the other artists were among the pioneers of American Abstract Expressionism. One of the principal sources of this was Surrealism, which the artists encountered at Art of This Century. More important, however, was the encouragement and support that Peggy, together with her friend and assistant Howard Putzel, gave to the members of this nascent New York avant-garde. Peggy and her collection thus played a vital intermediary role in the development of America’s first art movement of international importance.
In 1947 Peggy decided to return in Europe, where her collection was shown for the first time at the 1948 Venice Biennale, in the Greek pavilion. In this way the works of artists such as Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko were exhibited for the first time in Europe. The presence of Cubist, abstract, and Surrealist art made the pavilion the most coherent survey of Modernism yet to have been presented in Italy. Soon after, Peggy bought Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal in Venice, where she came to live. In 1950 Peggy organized the first European exhibition of Jackson Pollock, in the Ala Napoleonica of the Museo Correr in Venice. Her collection was in the meantime exhibited in Florence and Milan, and later in Amsterdam, Brussels, and Zurich. From 1951 Peggy opened her house and her collection to the public annually in the summer months. During her 30-year Venetian life, she continued to collect works of art and to support artists, such as Edmondo Bacci and Tancredi Parmeggiani, whom she met in 1951. In 1962 she was nominated made an Honorary Citizen of Venice.
In 1969 the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York invited Peggy to show her collection there. In 1970 she donated her palazzo and in 1976 her works of art to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. The Foundation had been created in 1937 by Peggy Guggenheim’s uncle Solomon, in order to promote the understanding of art and establish and operate “a museum or museums,” beginning with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum which holds his collection and, since 1959, has been housed in Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous spiral structure on Fifth Avenue in New York.
Peggy died aged 81 on 23 December 1979. Her ashes are placed in a corner of the garden of her museum. Since this time, under the oversight of the Guggenheim Foundation, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection has become one of the finest museums of modern art in the world.