J U N E 10,  2013

peggy portrait History of Collecting. Peggy Guggenheim


A third-generation American and grand-daughter of Jewish immigrants from Germany and Switzerland, Peggy Guggenheim managed not only to make a myth of her life, but also to build a fairly material monument in the form of a unique collection of modern art that became a public museum at her palace in Venice.

Nee Guggenheim, Peggy took her family name back after her first divorce in order not to mislead either those around her or her subsequent husbands. Besides that, she didn’t want to be confused with the second wife of her first husband. A little later we will take a look at her private life, which she made public with gusto. Peggy was indeed a true GUGGENHEIM and was absolutely entitled to this family name throughout her life despite the fact that other philanthropist relations contended for that “brand”.


How to Become a Guggenheim

The two grandfathers of Marguerite (Meggy – Peggy) left Europe to save their large families from oppression, job restrictions, poverty and other misfortunes. Her maternal grandfather James Seligman was a brother of Joseph Seligman, who in 1838, then aged 18, went to America entirely on his own and in two years of peddling earned enough money to send for his two older brothers (James being one of them). Later on the rest of the family joined them in America. They soon became prosperous in the burgeoning banking sector, made it to the nascent Jewish elite of New York and enjoyed the reputation of a rich and respectable family.

The Guggenheims came to America in 1847, and their road to riches was evolutionary. First they sold a popular cleaning paste for kitchen ovens that had recently appeared on the market, then broke the secret of the paste composition with the help of the local Jewish chemist and began to produce the popular product. Nor were they above selling laces sent to them from Europe by relations, until a friend offered them a share in a business started with loaned money that he couldn’t repay. That was how Huggenheim came into possession of a 30% stake (subsequently brought to 100%) in a silver mine. An 1881 investment of $25,000 brought $750,000 in profits in the late 1880s. The money was used to purchase a mine, after which the Huggenheims started thinking about venturing into steel making. Luck, painstaking work, thrift and strong discipline made the Guggenheims VERY rich, although for the Seligmans they had forever remained provincial hard workers who had come to the free country ten years later and never made it to the high Jewish society.



Despite the right strategy chosen by the first Guggenheim immigrants, Peggy’s grandfather made a serious mistake of sending his two younger sons to university. “Surplus” knowledge resulted in neglect of the family business and withdrawal from it, together with their respective shares. Peggy’s father, Benjamin Guggenheim, received $8 million from his father, opened his own pump selling company in Europe, and was even responsible for the installation of the first elevator at the Eiffel Tower. He loved to socialize and was fond of luxury hotels, villas and beautiful women. After the birth of his third daughter (Peggy was the second of the three) his family stopped traveling with him across Europe, leaving him to his own devices.

The S.S. Titanic, which left London on April 14, 1911, docked at Cherbourg to pick up more passengers. Fate willed it that Benjamin Guggenheim be among them. According to the 1st class steward, he was among the passengers who refused to put on life vests and, dressed in dinner-jackets, helped women and children on deck to get into lifeboats. Among such volunteers were other well-known wealthy people, including Isidor Straus, a Macy’s co-owner.

After Peggy’s father had been drowned, the family found itself in strained circumstances. Benjamin’s five elder brothers shouldered the responsibility for the widow and three orphans and took care of his scattered assets and debt repayment. The process took as long as seven years, after which the family finally came into their inheritance totaling $2,150,000, with $800,000 for the widow and $450,000 for each of the daughters. Half of the money was put in a trust, with annual spending strictly regulated.  For Peggy it meant that after coming of age she had a $20,000 annuity, which was quite a sum at that time.


 Private Life

As soon as she gained independence, Peggy didn’t hesitate to leave the puritanical America for the then democratic Europe. Some members of her family had already settled successfully in Britain. Peggy traveled with her mother, made numerous acquaintances and socialized. She was hypothetically interested in the art world, but associated mostly with expat Americans, some of them men of letters of different caliber. She met Laurence Vail, an erudite writer who spoke several languages (his father was English and his mother French) and was well-versed in modern literature, a brilliant interlocutor and a charming man. Peggy chose to marry him, just as subsequently she would herself choose her partners. They were a good couple, traveled much and spent time in literary discussions with their friends. Peggy bought houses and expensive cars, and thanks to her wealth they led a comfortable life. Laurence, too, was quite well-off, even though his fortune could not compare with Peggy’s: he received an annual allowance of $1,200 from his mother. They had a son, Sindbad, and a daughter, Pegeen. As a result of their bohemian lifestyle and humiliating dependence on Peggy Laurence became a violent alcoholic: he staged rows at restaurants and hotels and frequently ended up in police stations.

Looking for a quiet haven Peggy turned to Laurence’s friend John Holms, who, however, soon died on the operating table after having been given anesthesia when in a state of alcoholic intoxication. Peggy tried to find solace in an affair with the British publisher Douglas Garman, which didn’t last long. Her family life was in general rather entangled: the family got more children from Peggy’s new husbands, children of Laurence Vail from his second marriage, including his second wife’s children from her previous marriage. Relations with children were complicated by new liaisons and separations, and on top of that the children were not spared information about complicated relations with new partners.

Peggy found no happiness in private life and went through a series of family dramas: in 1927 her beloved elder sister died in childbirth, the following year two children of her younger sister died under strange circumstances (they simultaneously fell from an open terrace of a multistoried house in the presence of their mother) and in November 1937 her mother died of cancer. Peggy set her eyes on the world of art in search of a meaning in life. With her favorite Renaissance masterpieces absolutely beyond her reach, Peggy decided to focus on modern art.


Guggenheim History of Collecting. Peggy Guggenheim


London Gallery 

She ventured into a new field with her typical enthusiasm – in late 1937 she rented premises on Cork Street in West London next to major modern art galleries and started thinking of exhibitions.

Her long-time acquaintance Marcel Duchamp, who for 20 years had been a lover of her close American friend Mary Reynolds, became her consultant. By that time Duchamp already devoted more time to playing chess than to his art, but he was a recognized art theoretician, respected, among others, by the founder of Surrealism André Breton. As a consultant of Katherine Dreier, Theodore Dreiser’s daughter and a wealthy American collector and artist, Duchamp had been popularizing contemporary art for twenty years, organizing numerous exhibitions of the Аnonymous Society, together with Man Ray.

After their mother died, Peggy and her younger sister inherited $500,000 each, which added to Madame Guggenheim’s financial stability. The new gallery was called Guggenheim Jeune in imitation of the famous Paris gallery Bernheim Jeune. Both the opening of the gallery and its name became the cause of years-long difficulties in relations between Peggy and Hilla von Rebay, the consultant of Peggy’s uncle Solomon Guggenheim and his museum curator.

Peggy, who until then had showed interest exclusively in classical art and admired Italian Renaissance masterpieces, had to quickly gain command of modern art. Duchamp not only introduced her to all the famous European artists, but also enlightened her and taught her the ABCs of contemporary art. He explained the difference between abstract art and Surrealism, and between the Surrealism of “dreams”, represented by Dali and de Chirico, and the “abstract” Surrealism of Masson. Peggy absorbed with pleasure new information that Marcel selflessly shared with her: he thought what he did to be his mission and charged no consulting fees.

In the two years of its existence the Guggenheim Jeune gallery held shows of Jean Cocteau, Wassily Kandinsky, Yves Tanguy and exhibited contemporary sculpture (including works of Brancusi, Arp, Henry Moore, Pevsner and Calder), masks and other objects by Marie Vassilieff, as well as works of Wolfgang Paalen, Geer van Velde and other contemporary artists. Jointly with the neighboring gallery of Roland Penrose it exhibited collages of Picasso, Gris, Miro, Picabia, Braque and other outstanding contemporary artists.

Peggy Guggenheim was no philanthropist: commercial success (or at least partial recoupment of expenditures) was always important to her. In this respect the exhibition of Tanguy was quite successful. From the outset Peggy made it a rule to buy at least one work from the show to encourage the artists. Thus began her remarkable collection of 20th-century painting and sculpture.


Rescue of the Collection and Departure from Europe

In 1939 Peggy had another ambitious plan. She contemplated starting a museum of modern art in London in emulation of the MOMA, which had opened in New York in 1926. Suitable premises had to be found and a representative collection to be formed, for which she had to withdraw $40,000 from the family capital by convincing her uncles of a burning need. Inspiration came from Herbert Read, a famous British culture figure and politician, who made a list of artworks to be purchased with which Peggy set out for France. When she got there in August 1939, she immediately understood that hard times were in store and that war was inevitable. Peggy decided to delay her museum project, yet did not abandon plans for art purchases. Marcel Duchamp again came in good stead. They visited artists’ studios and discussed prices. Peggy often paid in hard currency, but also tried to pay with francs with an eye to favorable NYCE rates. Her collection forming plan was simple: she was to buy strictly a picture a day. Although the allocated sum wasn’t small, Peggy decided to cut her personal expenses and changed her car for something more economical. Let it be recalled that Peggy annually paid $10,000 in stipends and allowances, including to the American writer Djuna Barnes and the family of her first husband Laurence Vail.

In less than two years Peggy had acquired dozens of top-class works, including the best of Ernst, Miro, Magritte, Man Ray, Dali, Klee, Wolfgang Paalen, Chagall and many other artists, who were thus given a real chance to flee from the warring Europe.

After the German troops invaded France, Peggy herself took care of saving her family, which at that time found refuge in the French provinces – Laurence Vail with his second family and their common children, that is, a total of nine people, including a 16-year-old American girl, a friend of Peggy’s daughter.

Throughout her life Peggy regarded her collection as her children and above all took care of it. She tried to pass it on to Louvre for storage, but the museum staff said that the collection had no artistic value and refused to accept it for the duration of the war. She found understanding and help only with the director of the Grenoble Museum, who suggested that her collection be put up at the museum storerooms. For a while Peggy stayed calm, busying herself with artwork shipments and placement. However, as the collection comprised outstanding specimens of degenerate art, Peggy, worrying for its lot, opted for shipping it to the United States. In 1940 traffic between the occupied French territory and the free zone was less strictly controlled, and Peggy succeeded in dispatching the collection bit by bit first to Paris and then, under the disguise of furniture shipments to the USA, in having boxes with paintings loaded into containers. The Lefebvre-Foinet brothers, who owned a shipping company and had previously provided services to Peggy, were of great help.

After making sure that her collection was safe, Peggy took care of her family. Vail had an expired residence permit and his travel about France was therefore restricted. In the summer of 1941 Peggy went to Marseille, where there was an American consulate. She met there Varian Fry, who was in charge of rescuing culture figures and scientists from the Nazis, and at the Air Bel villa met Max Ernst, a German Surrealist artist who had just escaped from a Nazi transit camp and was waiting for a chance to leave France. Despite the harsh circumstances they became romantically involved. After making sure that her family was safe in the USA, Peggy could not leave Max who had neither Spanish, Portuguese or American entry visa, nor a permit to leave France. By lucky chance they managed to cross the border, and credit for getting an air ticket from Lisbon to New York should go to Peggy. She became a guarantor of Max’s stay in the USA: after the United States entered the war he, as a citizen of the enemy state, could be expelled back to Europe. Due to Peggy’s will and Max’s forced circumstances they got married in December 1941. It should be said that he never loved Peggy and left her for Dorothea Tanning.


The Art of This Century Gallery of New York

Accustomed to large houses and comfortable life, Peggy rented a two-storied house with a studio for Max on the second floor and began to throw parties for European exiles. Although the mood left much to be desired, life was going on, and artists continued to work. Pierre Matisse, son of Henri Matisse who had long lived in New York, staged a representative exhibition, “Artists in Exile”, at his gallery in 1942. André Breton led a secluded suburban life and associated only with a coterie of loyal partisans of Surrealism. Léger read lectures on modern art at Yale University. Young American artists tried to keep up with the mâitres of modern European art and imbibe European culture.

Under the circumstances Peggy decided to open a gallery of modern art in New York, where she also wanted to put up her collection. To organize exhibition space she invited the well-known stage designer Frederick John Kiesler, who designed premises that got nearly more press coverage than the collection itself and the gallery. The gallery, which was called The Art of This Century, opened on October 20, 1942. Among the European artists represented were Kandinsky, Tanguy, Miro, Braque, Picasso, Léger, Masson, Arp, de Chirico, Ernst, Dali, Giacometti and Matta.


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Young American artist also exhibited at the gallery, some of them showing their works to the public for the first time. Some of them – Jackson PollockMark RothkoWillem de Kooning and Alexander Calder – were to become world famous.

In the four and a half years of its existence the gallery held 53 exhibitions presenting 103 artists. Works for the exhibitions were chosen by an art council, which included MoMA director  Alfred H. Barr, Marcel Duchamp, Abstractionist artist Pieter Mondrian, gallery curator Howard Putzel, MoMA curators James Johnson Sweeney and James Trall Soby, and of course Peggy herself.


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In the years of the gallery operation Peggy became a notable figure on the American art scene. As a matter of fact, she discovered Jackson Pollock, regularly exhibited his works at her gallery and paid him a monthly allowance that kept him working. Budding artists could give a helping hand with the mounting of exhibitions at her gallery and get paints and other materials by way of payment.

Yet, despite the already settled life in the USA, Peggy with all her heart wanted to go back to Europe at the first opportunity. She couldn’t get over her breakup with Max Ernst and never loved America.

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Comeback to Europe

Peggy had to make a not so simple choice of home for herself and her collection. Far too many personal memories were linked with Britain, France was still in postwar ruin, so Venice, which Peggy had loved from her youth, became the natural choice.

A large house was needed for the collection, so Peggy chose the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni with its large garden, a rarity in Venice. The collection was shipped in 1949 at the expense of the Italian government, which had invited her to take part in the Venice biennale: Greece couldn’t participate because of the civil war and its national pavilion stood vacant. Peggy was bursting with pride: she felt she was a new European nation and exhibited 136 top-grade works of modern European and American art at the biennale. Her collection was so representative that it overshadowed the national expositions of Britain (which exhibited Henry Moore and Turner), France (Chagall, Braque, Lipchitz and Rouault), Belgium (Delvaux, Ensor and Margitte) and Austria (Egon Schiele). That was the beginning of the triumph of Peggy Guggenheim’s collection in Europe.


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When the biennale was over, the collection was moved to the palazzo, which was open to the public during summer. Servants explained to visitors which way to go – the paintings were on the ground floor and the sculptures in the garden. Peggy and her guests enjoyed watching the visitors from the upper terrace. The atmosphere was very democratic: visitors could walk freely and occasionally wandered into the guest bedrooms to see the pictures hung there. For many years there were neither security system, guards nor insurance.

Peggy continued to buy paintings until the mid-1970s and also swapped artworks with other collectors, although the bulk of the collection, of course, had been formed in 1939-41 in Europe and in 1941-7 in New York.


Peggy Guggenheim 06 History of Collecting. Peggy Guggenheim



In 1963 Peggy began to think seriously about how to preserve and who to bequeath her collection. She always wanted it to stay in Europe and at first offered to gift it to the Italian government, of course, on certain terms. The Italians were slow to respond, so Peggy turned to London’s Tate Gallery. Her terms were rather tough – the collection could not be split, had to be exhibited on the same premises, and she was to provide no collection maintenance funds. Eventually, she decided that the collection was to stay in the palazzo, and the Tate Gallery was to shoulder its upkeep in Venice. What was more, Peggy refused to pay taxes involved in the change of ownership, a sizable sum under the Italian laws. To move the collection back to the USA was another alternative, but there was a danger of it landing in some backwaters and getting too little exposure. Still another option considered was to transfer the collection to the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, but Peggy was afraid that her collection might get dispersed in the museum founded by her uncle. After several years of onerous negotiations Peggy settled on the Guggenheim Foundation, which agreed to her terms and was to find financing for collection and palazzo maintenance in Venice. Peggy had never considered leaving the collection or part of it to her children, and their last hope to get at least the palazzo thus vanished in thin air. After Peggy died, her son inherited $400,000 that he shared with his nephews. Peggy’s daughter had already been dead by that time.


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Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, Venice


Collector’s Mission

Peggy was a difficult person from a difficult family. She had inherited eccentricity from her mother; she lacked flexibility and said what she thought without caring about other people’s feelings. She claimed to have had a thousand lovers, but no one called her a muse, even though some of her partners were very talented, as for example the artists Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy and the writer Samuel Beckett.

She always got what she wanted, but was never satisfied with anything. Her collection was indeed for her a real child, to whom she devoted her whole life and thus immortalized not only herself but also her near and dear. The collection was the meaning of her life and her alter ego.

Most of her life Peggy Guggenheim was a collector, and she has remained a collector despite her physical death. She often said that there was no collector without a collection. The meaning of her words becomes clear when collections get dispersed, auctioned off piece by piece, and the contribution of the collector who in his/her time put trust into a certain artist or concrete work no longer matters. What is left is just the artwork itself and its new, more often than not temporary owner. Today’s collectors prefer to invest in art rather than surround themselves with things they love. As for investment, works from the Peggy Guggenheim collection purchased for $250,000 are now estimated at $350 million.




Anton Gill. Art lover. A biography of Peggy Guggenheim. HarperCollins Publishers, UK, 2001.

Peggy Guggenheim. Confessions Of an Art Addict. Kindle Edition.

Artists in the Guggenheim collection.