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The Peggy Guggenheim effect. How one woman changed the course of art history.

Updated: May 5, 2023

Peggy Guggenheim made a significant impact in the realm of art and is widely regarded as an iconic figure. Despite facing numerous challenges and experiencing ups and downs along the way, she gained respect and recognition as a prominent collector and advocate of emerging trends in contemporary art. Moreover, she was especially gifted when it came to discovering and nurturing artistic talents, and her ability to acquire and multiply wealth was truly outstanding.

So, what led to Peggy Guggenheim becoming the most influential woman in the arts during the first half of the 20th century?

Peggy Guggenheim_ Venice_April 1969_Photograph_ Stefan Moses
Peggy Guggenheim_ Venice_April 1969_Photograph_ Stefan Moses
“I look back on my life with great joy. I think it was a very successful life. I always did what I wanted and never cared what anyone thought. Women's lib? I was a liberated woman long before there was a name for it”. - Peggy Guggenheim
Benjamin Guggenheim _Photo_ Wikimedia Commons _Public Domain_
Benjamin Guggenheim. (Wikimedia Commons)

Peggy was born into a wealthy New York family in 1898. Her father, the successful industrialist Benjamin Guggenheim, perished in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and the young Peggy inherited his considerable fortune. Despite this, the girl was for a long time in the shadow of her famous family.

Solomon Guggenheim, her uncle, was a coal magnate, founder of the Yukon Gold Company in Alaska, and a well-known patron of the arts. The Museum of Modern Art in New York was even named after him.

Life in Paris: Immersing in the art world

After the end of World War I, Peggy moved to Paris with her husband Lawrence Vail and her mother. At the time, Paris was the center of aristocratic Bohème during the heyday of avant-garde movements such as Surrealism, Cubism, Futurism, Abstractionism and Dada. This was also the time when Guggenheim began to delve into her own artistic interests.

Although her union with Lawrence was not a happy one, he as a writer, painter, and sculptor enabled Peggy to gain access to an art world that he himself had adeptly navigated. It was a realm where art was created, discussed and contemplated, and which was in dire need of wealthy patrons. Peggy Guggenheim had the perfect opportunity, which she took full advantage of.

Marcel Duchamp's mentorship and the beginning of her collection

Peggy Guggenheim

In Paris, Peggy makes the acquaintance of Marcel Duchamp, who would later be considered one of the most influential figures in 20th-century art. Acting as a mentor to the aspiring collector, Duchamp advised her not to acquire established masters and to focus instead on emerging, up-and-coming artists. Guggenheim purchased pieces by artists relatively unknown at the time, such as Picasso, Kandinsky, and Dali, which added to her wealth with each passing day. She operated on the principle of "one painting a day."

As a result, Peggy established the "Young Guggenheim" Gallery in London in 1938, which became a significant milestone in the world of contemporary art. Her innovative approach and distinctive vision played a crucial role in shaping the artistic landscape of the time.

War years: saving art and artists

Following the onset of World War II, Peggy returned to the United States and played a crucial role in aiding numerous artists to escape from war-ravaged Europe. Additionally, she joined the French Resistance and helped save both people and modern artworks that had been deemed of low artistic value and were therefore not accepted for storage at the Louvre.

In 1942, Peggy established a new gallery in Manhattan known as “The Art of this Century”, which showcased a diverse range of contemporary art movements she had discovered.

Peggy Guggenheim at home with Jackson Pollock in front of his Mural (1943), New York, ca. 1946
Peggy Guggenheim at home with Jackson Pollock in front of his Mural (1943), New York, ca. 1946

Supporting and shaping American Abstract Expressionism

Worth noting that Peggy Guggenheim played an enormous role in strengthening Jackson Pollock's position as a central figure of American Abstract Expressionism. Through her patronage and support, Guggenheim was key in bringing Pollock to critical acclaim and worldwide recognition in the art community.

Her influence extended not only to Pollock, but also to other prominent artists of the era, such as Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning, and had a significant impact on the development of modern art.

Peggy Guggenheim's love affairs: a collector of men

Max Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim,This Century Gallery
Max Ernst, Peggy Guggenheim,This Century Gallery

Regarding her penchant for collecting,

Peggy Guggenheim was not just a collector of art but also had a reputation as a passionate lover of men, continually adding to her list of romantic partners.

As an enthusiastic collector, Guggenheim had a keen eye for intriguing specimens and engaged in numerous affairs with artists, writers, and other intellectuals. Her list of notable lovers includes Samuel Beckett, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Yves Tanguy.

“Peace was the one thing that Max (Ernst) needed in order to paint, and love was the one thing I needed in order to live. As neither of us gave the other what he most desired, our union was doomed to failure”. - Peggy Guggenheim

The Venice years: The Palazzo Venier dei Leoni

Hermann Landshoff. Photo of Artists with Peggy
Hermann Landshoff. Photo of Artists with Peggy

After the war, Guggenheim moved to Venice, which became her permanent ⁸residence. Her unwavering artistic vision and unrelenting passion for collecting led to a vast collection that embodied the boundless world of contemporary art. Her intimate collection was housed in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, an 18th-century palace along the Grand Canal.

This awe-inspiring collection featured works by the most famous artists of the 20th century, including Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock, Wassily Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, Piet Mondrian, Max Ernst, Georges Braque, Gino Severini, Juan Miró, Casimir Malevich, Marino Marini, Giorgio de Chirico and many others.

Family Life: The neglected children and cherished dogs

Although Guggenheim was an ardent collector and advocate of contemporary art, she did not have outstanding parental skills. She had two children from her marriage to Lawrence Vail, whom she largely neglected, which subsequently led to a very strained relationship between them. Nevertheless, she had a deep affection for her 14 dogs, which she cherished and was even buried with them in the garden of her residence in Venice.

Despite Peggy Guggenheim's ambiguous and controversial image as a socialite of her time, a negligent mother and a charismatic seductress of men, she remained a significant player in the art world until her death in 1979. Her influence has been preserved through the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, which today has become one of the most vital contemporary art museums in the world. The museum's collection, which attracts thousands of visitors each year, is a testament to the Guggenheims' unwavering commitment to and visionary approach to contemporary art.


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