Peggy Guggenheim

Sex Addict, Art Addict, Outrageous, Flamboyant, Fascinating, Headstrong, Avant-garde, Woman.

Who was Peggy Guggenheim, the woman whose home on the Grand Canal in Venice is now a world renowned Art Museum?


Peggy Guggenheim was born in New York on 26 August 1898, to very wealthy parents Benjamin Guggenheim and Florette Seligman. Her Uncle was Solomon Guggenheim, the founder of the Guggenheim Museum Foundation. It was probably expected that Peggy marry well in New York and live a glamorous safe and comfortable life of a socialite. However, Peggy had other ideas.

In 1921, after coming of age and receiving part of her inheritance (her father died on the Titanic)  Peggy moved to Paris where she became swept up in the avant-garde bohemian lifestyle. Peggy was able to financially support many of these avant-garde artists and writers, and became a part of their circle, making close friends with many influential artists of the time, including Marcel Duchamp, whom would remain an important figure in her life and who was instrumental in helping Peggy define her love of art and become the woman she was.

Whilst in Paris, circulating with these artists, Peggy met and married writer and artist Laurence Vail, nicknamed ‘the king of the bohemians’ in March 1922. He viewed Peggy as a woman he could teach the ways of art and the world to. Their marriage, however, was not to be a happy one, with many explosive arguments. In 1932 Vail published Murder! Murder! a satire about their marriage. They divorced after 7 years,  both reportedly had affairs. Peggy revealed to a biographer “He became my best friend afterwards, after he stopped beating me up,”.  She exhibited works of Vails later in 1938 in her London gallery, and he encouraged her in writing her autobiography, so it is clear they did remain as close as she had written. The couple had two children together, their son Sindbad born in France, and daughter Pegeen, born in Switzerland.

Peggy was known as flamboyant, and perhaps crude for her time; a sex and art addict. She started a love affair with writer John Holms, before she and Vail divorced, Holms and Peggy were together five years before he died during an operation for an injured wrist in 1934. Holms was a drinker and was hungover when he went into surgery when his heart stopped. She wrote in her autobiography of their meeting, “all I remember now is that he took me to a tower and kissed me… that certainly made an impression on me, and I can attribute everything that followed to that simple little kiss.”

For the rest of her life, Peggy thought of John as the great love of her life. Perhaps she was trying to fill the loss John, or perhaps she just liked sex, with many different men, as she reportedly had thousands of lovers. Peggy published many details using thinly veiled pseudonyms in her scandalous autobiography Out of this Century. Many artists in return claimed to have been lovers of Peggy’s.

After John Holms death Peggy took solace with Douglas Garman, their relationship came to an end around three years later, and Peggy found herself for the first time in 15 years, not playing the role of wife. Listless with anything else, she turned to the arts and in January 1938 opened her first gallery Guggenheim Jeune in London. Her good friend Marcel Duchamp curated her first show, and the gallery exhibited works by many important contemporary, surrealist and cubist artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Henry Moore, and Max Ernst (whom she later married and divorced). Although exhibitions popular, the gallery was not financially viable. Peggy began purchasing works of the exhibited artists, so they each made one sale, this was the beginning of Peggy’s collection. Peggy returned to Paris after Guggenheim Jeune closed and guided by her friend Marcel Duchamp, began actively purchasing art, she credits Duchamp with teaching her the difference between Surrealism and Abstract art, this may be, but it is clear, Peggy had an eye for talent herself. From 1939 she built up her art collection at breakneck speed, she kept her resolve of ‘a picture day’, and purchased masterpieces (by Salvador Dali, Piet Mondrian, Georges Braque, Robert Delaunay, and Francis Picabia) of her collection during this tumultuous time in Paris, (the start of WWII) encouraging, fostering and befriending artists.

In 1941, Peggy, a Jew, fled German-occupied Paris to New York, after being questioned by authorities and narrowly being let go by insisting she was American and not stating her Jewish heritage.  Peggy, her first husband Laurence Vail, his wife Kay Boyle (with whom he had an affair whilst married to Peggy), Max Ernst and all their children fled together. But not before Peggy smuggled much of the art she had collected out of Europe preventing Nazi confiscation, essentially saving vast amounts of contemporary, cubist and surrealist works from destruction.

In October of 1942 in New York, Peggy opened Art of this Century, her Gallery/ Museum for modern art. On opening night, she wore “…one of my Tanguy earrings and one made by Calder in order to show my impartiality between Surrealist and Abstract Art.” Peggy was hugely influential in the development of American Expressionism, and alongside big-name European artists exhibited works by unknown new American artists, including her star, Jackson Pollock.

In 1947 Peggy returned to Europe, settling in Venice instead of Paris. Her home a palazzo, is now the impressive Peggy Guggenheim Museum, right on the canal. Her collection was nearly complete by the time she returned to Europe and made Venice her home. She opened up her collection for public viewing in her palazzo, three times a week in the 1950’s, in her old age she became increasingly concerned with her privacy and noted how some people wished Peggy to be included as a sight to be viewed.

peggy-guggenheim-at-home-on-the-terrace-in-venicePeggy relaxing out the front of her home in Venice

In 1969, Peggy agreed she would donate her collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation as long as it remained intact in Venice once she died. Peggy passed away at 81 years old, on 23 January 1979, her ashes remain in the garden of her museum. When you visit the Museum today, you can wander through each room, and much of the art placement was exactly as it was.

the-peggy-guggenheim .             The Peggy Guggenheim Museum from the Grand Canal

Old PeggyPeggy in the courtyard of her home in Venice

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