Art Lover: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim

Peggy Guggenheim was an American art collector who was as well known for her private life as for her art collection. She was born on August 26, 1898 in New York, the middle daughter of three and christened Marguerite. Her father Benjamin Guggenheim was one of 11 children of the wealthy Guggenheim family, but he had left the firm along with his younger brother William. Consequently, he didn't share in any of the profits of the company after 1906. Although he still had an income of over $250,000 a year, he also had an extravagant lifestyle with homes in New York and Paris, where he had several mistresses.

Peggy's mother Florette Seligman's family had looked down on the Guggenheim's. Although the Guggenheim's were wealthier, the Selgiman's had come to the United States ten years before the Guggenheim's and still considered them nouveau riche. Peggy's parents were unhappy together from the beginning. Her mother was an eccentric who sprayed Lysol on everything, and had a happy of repeating phrases 3 times. Her father Benjamin was a handsome engineer but a lousy businessman. Peggy from childhood was a Daddy's girl, she competed with her younger sister Hazel for her father's attention. After spending several years living in Paris, Benjamin had decided to come back to New York. Unfortunately he booked passage on the ill-fated Titanic and went down with the ship. Peggy and her sister Hazel spent the rest of their lives trying to find a father substitute with mixed results.

Her father's death also meant that Peggy and her sisters, while not exactly poor, had to live on a tight budget until the will could be sorted out. They had to move out of their home on the Upper East Side into a smaller apartment. Still Peggy and her sisters were brought up by governesses like most Upper Class children. Peggy didn't attend a school until she was 15 years old. Peggy was a voracious reader who was constantly trying to improve herself. She had wanted to go to college but her older sister Benita discouraged her. Although she made her debut, Peggy disliked the tight group of German-Jewish families that made up her social circle. The German Jews who came to the new world discovered that while they were no longer forced to live in ghettos, there were still invisible barriers that they could never breach. Hotels that didn't accept Jews, colleges that had 'Jewish quotas' for enrollment, firms that wouldn't hire them. Because of this, they lived in a very insular world, assimilated but only so far. Many of the German Jewish families inter-married so often that soon almost everyone was related to everyone else. While her mother Florette and her sister Benita thrived in this world, Peggy longed for the world outside the narrow confines of their social circle.

After the first World War, she took a job at an avant-garde bookstore in Greenwich Village, her salary was all the books she could read. It was her first exposure to artists such as Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keefe, and to ideas such as communism. Still Peggy longed to go to Europe. She set sail with her mother and a cousin in 1921. Apart from a few trips back, Peggy didn't return full-time to the US until 1941. At the age of 21, Peggy now had an income of $25,000 a year. Peggy loved living in Europe, particularly Paris. Paris became the place to be in the aftermath of the war, particularly for writers and artists. They could live cheaply and they could drink without worry of getting busted by the police (Prohibition had been declared in 1919). Still Peggy longed for more freedom, and the only way to achieve that was to get married.

She had met Lawrence Vail in New York and met up again with him in Paris. Lawrence was older, erudite, Oxford educated. He was a painter and a writer, whose relationship with his sister Clothilde would raise eyebrows and cause problems in his marriage. Peggy fell for him because he was the antithesis of the men in her family. However, he was no prize. He drank too much and threw tantrums if he wasn't the center of attention. Still Peggy had made up her mind to marry him in 1923. They soon had two children Michael Sindbad (always called Sindbad) and Pegeen. The marriage was a disaster. Peggy wasn't above throwing it in Lawrence's face that she held the purse strings.

While in Paris, Peggy became friendly with avant-garde writers and artists like the photographer Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. She became a regular at the salons of art patron and writer Natalie Barney. She also became aquainted with Djuna Barnes, a former lover of Lawrence Vail. She made her first tentative forays into patronage by paying Djuna $40 a month to enable her to write. She also gave money to artist Mina Loy to open a shop selling lamps. More successful was her patronage of anarchist Emma Goldman and her former lover Sasha Berkman. The two were now living in the South of France, disallusioned with life in the Soviet Union. Peggy found Emma Goldman a house and provided her with an allowance while she struggled to write her memoirs.

In 1927, Peggy's older sister Benita died in childbirth, after suffering 5 previous miscarriages. Peggy was devastated. Although she was only three years older than Peggy, Benita had been more of a mother to her than her own mother. After putting up with Lawrence's verbal and physical abuse, Peggy had had enough. She had always considered herself to be the ugly duckling of the family. Although she had a great figure, and luxuriant chestnut hair, Peggy unfortunately also inherited the Guggenheim nose. She was incredibly self-conscious of her nose, she'd tried to have it fixed in 1920, but plastic surgery was in its infancy and her doctor realized that he couldn't give her the nose she wanted. Peggy went through periods of her life where she was wildly promiscuous, using sex to buoy her self-confidence.

Constantly on the look-out for the a man to replace her father, Peggy had the worst luck with men. After leaving Vail, she fell in love with John Holms, another alcoholic who had ambitions to be a writer that were never fulfilled. Like Vail, he was handsome and intelligent, and had a messy personal life. While Vail's relationship with his sister was too close for comfort, Holms had a common-law wife. Still that didn't stop Peggy for making a play for him. John Holms left his wife and moved in with Peggy. When Peggy and Vail divorced, they had an unusual custody arrangement, Peggy got custody of Pegeen and Lawrence, Sindbad. Like her parents, Peggy was an indifferent mother. Her personal life seemed to matter more to her than her children.

Holms died of a heart attack during an operation to fix a broken wrist leaving Peggy broken-hearted and convinced that she had lost the love of her life. However she soon quickly moved on to someone else, a man named Douglas Gorman. Peggy was living in England now in the country at place called Yew cottage. Her relationship with Gorman ended when he fell in love with Communism and began to devote his life to the cause. She began an affair with the future playwright Samuel Beckett, who also had two other mistresses. Peggy was now nearing 40 and felt that her life was over. It was her friend Peggy Davos who had married her sister Hazel's ex-husband, who was the catalyst for the next phase in Peggy's life. She wrote Peggy a letter encouraging her to do some 'serious work, either in an art gallery or as a literary agent.' Peggy chose art as her life's work. She made her first purchase in 1937 of a sculpture called Tete et coquille by Jean Arps.

She also had her uncle Solomon Guggenheim as an example. Having purchased a priceless collection of Old Masters, he had now turned to the abstract art of Kandinsky and Rudolf Bauer. Peggy didn't have her uncle Solomon's money, not being rich with a capital R, so she decided to focus on modern art. She enlisted the aid of her good friend, the artist Marcel Duchamp. He became her mentor and guide for her gallery in London and later in New York. Peggy had inherited an additional $500,000 on her mother's death, which now pushed her yearly income to around $50,000 a year. Of course, out of that she was paying Djuna Barnes an allowance as well as her ex-husband Lawrence Vail and John Holms common law wife Dorothy.

Peggy gave up buying the couture clothing that she loved in order to buy art. From then on until her death, Peggy bought only 2 or 3 dresses a year, spending the rest of her money on art. In 1938, she opened a gallery in London called Guggenheim Jeune located at 30 Cork Street. During the two years that she ran the gallery, Guggenheim Jeune showcased artists such as Jean Cocteau, Jean Arps, Kandinksy (his first one man show in England), Yves Tanguy (with whom she had an affair), and Wolfgang Paalen. She also held group exhibitions of sculpture and collage. Peggy soon realized that the gallery, although a success, lost 600 pounds in the first year. She began to conceive of the idea of opening a museum of modern art in London. She set aside $40,000 for the running costs, and worked with English art historian and critic Herbert Read on the plans. The outbreak of World War II changed her plans.

Instead, Peggy used the $40,000 to go to Paris to purchase art. By the time she was done she had bought 10 Picassos (who disliked her considering her a dilletante), 40 Ernsts, 8 Miros, 4 Margrittes, 3 Man Rays, 3 Dalis, 1 Klee, 1 Chagall among others. With the Germans approaching Paris, she fled to the South of France where she worked with Varian Fry to help get several artists out of the country including Max Ernst. Arriving in New York in 1941 with her art collection intact, Peggy decided to open a new gallery in New York called The Art of This Century Gallery. Two of the three galleries were dedicated to Cubism and Surrealism, with the front room used as a commercial gallery. Peggy loved being able to help her friends as well as the whole buying and selling of art. She got as much pleasure out of selling the catalogs as she did the exhibitions.

Peggy had arrived back in New York to a different world than the one she had left. She had missed the great skyscraper boom, the great depression, and prohibition. She had also missed the flowering of American art, including the Ashcan school and artists like Edward Hopper, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. Peggy's influences were a group of artists whose greatest works were behind them. She had to be convinced that artists like Jackson Pollack were worth looking at. However once she saw his work, she agreed to support Pollack by paying him $100 a month and buying many of his paintings.

She also married again, this time to the painter Max Ernst with whom she had been having an on-off affair. Ernst didn't love her, and only married her because Peggy had convinced him that he was in danger of being sent to an internment camp in the States because he was German. The marriage lasted until the end of the war. As soon as she could, Peggy decided to move back to Europe. She closed her gallery in New York in 1947 and sailed back to Paris, eventually settling in Venice, Italy. In 1948, she was invited to show her collection at the Biennale in Venice. She found an unusual palazzo just across the Grand Canal in the Duodorso called Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. Here she settled in and set up her collection. The collection was free to visit but the catalog cost $3.

By the 1960's, Peggy had stopped collecting art apart from African and primative art. Most modern art was out of her price range, and she wasn't interested in newer artists like Andy Warhol or movements like Pop-Art. She did buy a Francis Bacon, the only one she said that didn't give her nightmares. The rest of her life was devoted to figuring out what to do with her collection after her death. For awhile she was in talks with the Tate Gallery in London. But eventually, Peggy decided to keep it in the family but donating the Palazzo and the collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

As Peggy grew older, there were fewer lovers. She spent most of her time with her many Llasa Apso dogs, many of whom are buried on the grounds of the Palazzo. Her daughter Pegeen, troubled for years, and having a deeply dysfunctional relationship with her mother, died of a drug overdose. Pegeen had often suffered from depression and had attempted suicide several times. Although Peggy had been an indifferent mother, she also wanted to have a say in how Pegeen lived her life. She supported Pegeen as an artist, including her artwork in exhibitions at the Art of the Century gallery in New York. Peggy was distraught and blamed Pegeen's second husband for her death. One wall in her gallery was devoted to Pegeen's art work after her death. Her relationship with her son Sindbad was not much better. He once remarked that both Peggy and his step-mother Kay Boyle were bitches.

Peggy finally died in 1979 at the age of 81. She was cremated and buried on the grounds of the Palazzo. The museum finally opened a few years after her death. Like the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, the artwork is displayed the way she designed it.

The Peggy Guggenheim collection is one of the most important museums in Italy for European and American art of the first half of the 20th century, encompassing Cubism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. It joins a host of Guggenheim museums around the world including Bilbao, Berlin, Las Vegas and New York. It can also be looked at as one woman's testament of her life. All of Peggy's paintings were chosen personally by her. They weren't just museums pieces, this was art that she lived with on a day to day basis. During her lifetime, she published her memoirs and was remarkably candid about her many love affairs with both men and women for which she was greatly criticized. In the end real love seemed to have eluded Peggy but it can be said that the great love of her life was never a man or a woman but her art collection.


Anton Gill - Art Lover: A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim


Pam Walter said…
What a fascinating person! Her story would make a great movie.
Kirsten Steen said…
I've been reading more about Venice lately and have been wanting to find out more about Peggy so this was perfect timing for me!
Thanks for sharing!
Enid Wilson said…
What a life! I wonder if she had many regrets and unfulfilled wishes.

Steamy Darcy
I'm glad that everyone enjoyed reading about Peggy. She was fun to write. Kirsten, Venice is beautiful. While I was there, I didn't get a chance to see the museum, but its on my list for my next trip!

Enid, I'm not sure that Peggy was self-reflective, she tended to live in the moment. I think if she had any regrets at all, it was about her daughter Pegeen.
{Tara} said…
Great post!! I never knew she was married to Ernst. What a fascinating woman!
Joseph P. said…
Sexist and tone deaf to the life of this extraordinary woman, this book is full of name.

Kitchen Benchtops
Gunilla said…
Great story! Like the focus on her Love for art. There is a documentary now. According to the reviews it sadly emphazises the same critic she had from others during her life time instead of trying to show Who she really was beyond that.

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