Our World

Peggy Guggenheim

Art & Design

During a visit to Florence in the spring of 2016, I had the opportunity to visit Peggy Guggenheim's exhibit at the Palazzo Strozzi. I was not prepared for the impact of seeing so many paintings that I've always loved together in such an intimate and beautifully historic setting. I was amongst the greatest painters and sculptors of the twentieth century - Constantin Brancusi, Mark Rothko, Cy Twombly, Marc Chagall, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Lucio Fontana, Piet Mondrian, Georges Braque and Fernard Léger. I completely understood what it meant to have my own 'Florence Syndrome' moment. As much I was familiar with most of the artists in the exhibit, I knew nothing about Peggy Guggenheim and was instantly fascinated. I wanted to know who she was, and how she managed to amass one of the world's largest collections of modern art and become the legend that she is.

Peggy Guggenheim in Paul Poiret couture. Paris 1924. Photo by Man Ray

Peggy was born in New York City in 1898. Her father, Benjamin Guggenheim, a wealthy industrialist, was on the maiden voyage of The Titanic in 1912. He famously told other passengers, "We've dressed in our best and we'll go down like gentlemen", as they smoked cigars and sipped brandy in the dining room. He relinquished his place on Lifeboat #9 to his mistress, a French singer, with whom he shared an apartment in Paris.

Peggy Guggenheim’s Silver Bed Head. 1946. Alexander Calder

With an inheritance of $450,000 from her father, and a reported $2.5 million (equivalent to $39 million today) from her grandfather, Peggy left New York for a new life in London and in 1938 opened an art gallery, Guggenheim Jeune. At 39 years old, she dedicated herself to contemporary art and building a collection to share with the world. Her motto to "buy a picture a day" succeeded. Known as a 'penny pincher', she bought a Kandinsky oil for $500 (1929); Giacometti sculpture for $250 (1931), a Klee for $200 (1934) and was given a Brancusi Bird in Space. In Peggy's diary she tells the story. "During the war I wanted to buy a Brancusi. I used to go and see him every day. The awful thing is, I thought if I had an affair with him the Bird would be cheaper." On the day that the Germans invaded Paris in April of 1940, Brancusi met Peggy at his studio and generously gave her one. Many artists in Paris were quickly packing up and hiding their art before fleeing the city. Knowing that many were desperate to sell, Peggy wisely spent $40,000 and bought what she could - not on impulse, but from a careful list of pieces that she wanted in her collection. There was one exception - Picasso, who dismissed her from his studio saying, "Madame, you will find the lingerie department on the second floor". As the city braced for Hitler's troops, Peggy stayed sitting in cafes and drinking champagne - a very bold and dangerous move for a single woman with a distinguished Jewish name. In 1941 she left Paris for the United States. Fortunately, the Nazi's had decided that her collection of art wasn't worth anything and she was able to ship it to New York as "household" goods.

After the war, Peggy returned to her favourite city, Venice and purchased an 18th century marble palazzo situated on the Grand Canal for $60,000. The Palazzo Venier dei Leoni would become her permanent home and avant-garde salon. In 1948, Peggy was asked by the Greek government to display her private collection during the Venice Biennale. Peggy's pavilion was one of the most popular and introduced her as a forward-thinking patron and collector. It's an understatement to say how progressive she was for her time. It's very well documented that she was fiercely independent and very open about her liaisons and affairs with apparently 1,000 different men and women. When asked how many husbands she'd had, the twice married Peggy replied, "Do you mean mine, or other people's?"

Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Venice, Italy

Peggy Guggenheim’s Silver Bed Head. 1946. Alexander Calder

As much as Peggy came from a wealthy family and could have easily lived off her inheritance, Peggy did not have an easy life. She never recovered from the loss of her father at the age of 13, the death of her favourite sister, Benita, who died during childbirth in 1927, and the death of her sister Hazel's two small sons, who plunged from their mother's grasp off a rooftop in New York a year later. Although Hazel wasn't charged with the murder, it was widely assumed it was due to her family's name and interference. Later that year she married an alcoholic, violent man who abused and tormented her, giving her the nickname 'Dog Nose'. In 1937, her inheritance gave her an opportunity to find a new life in Europe and the start of her incomparable collection of art. While in her lifetime she wasn't known for her kindness, or for being particularly friendly, Truman Capote, Jean Cocteau and Henry Moore all came to Venice to see her collection. She famously refused an invitation to Andy Warhol.

Peggy and her Lhasa Apso dogs on the roof terrace of Palazzo Venier dei Leoni

Peggy spent the remainder of her life happily in her palazzo along with her 14 Lhasa Apso dogs. They are buried in a gravesite in her private garden. She trusted them more than people because of what life had dealt her. They were her "babies" that she loved unconditionally. She was known to say that they "did not care if I had a nose that was ugly or wore outrageous sunglasses". Before she died, Peggy donated the palazzo and her collection of 260 pieces to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, named after her uncle. Her art collection, at the time of her death in December of 1979, was valued at around $30 million. Larry Gagosain, a foremost art collector, believes today that her palazzo and collection would be worth billions.

"I dedicated myself to my collection. A collection means hard work. It was what I wanted to do, and I made it my life's work. I am not an art collector. I am a museum"

- Peggy Guggenheim