Greatest Art Collectors Series:
Peggy Guggenheim

Biography of Collector of Abstract Art.


Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979)

Early Life, Moves to Paris

Now established as one of the most influential art collectors of the mid-20th century, the American dealer and museum curator Marguerite "Peggy" Guggenheim was never likely to live an ordinary life. Born in New York into the wealthy Jewish-German-Dutch Guggenheim family, she lost her father Benjamin at 14 when he went down on the Titanic, and at 21 inherited $2.5 million (equivalent to $20 million today). A year later she moved to Europe, living in Paris with her first husband, the Dada sculptor Laurence Vail. Here she got to know a number of 20th century painters and 20th century sculptors living in Monmartre and Montparnasse. These included three of the great pioneers of 20th century avant-garde art, American Man Ray, the Romanian Constantin Brancusi and the avant-garde French artist Marcel Duchamp.

Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922)
Greatest collector of Impressionism.
Pavel Tretyakov (1832-1898)
Greatest collector of Russian art.
Isabella Stewart Gardner (1840-1924)
Boston decorative/fine art collector.
Sergei Shchukin (1854-1936)
Patron of Matisse, Picasso.
Solomon R Guggenheim (1861-1949)
US art collector, museum-founder.
Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939)
First modern dealer in Paris.
Ivan Morozov (1871-1921)
Russian collector of Cezanne, Monet.
Dr Albert C Barnes (1872-1951)
America's greatest art collector.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942)
Founder of Whitney Museum, NY.
Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947)
Collector, Impressionist paintings.

Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler (1884-1979)
Dealer of Picasso & Cubism.
Duncan Phillips (1886-1966)
Founder of Phillips Collection.
Paul Guillaume (1891-1934)
Dealer of Ecole de Paris paintings.
J Paul Getty (1892-1976)
Oil tycoon, art/antiquities collector.
Leo Castelli (1907-99)
Leading New York art dealer.
Charles Saatchi (b.1943)
Collects contemporary art.

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Opens London Art Gallery

In 1938, after a brief affair with Samuel Beckett, she opened the Guggenheim Jeune gallery in Cork Street, London - the name being a crude imitation of the Parisian Bernheim Jeune Gallery - specializing in modern art, that is to say surrealism and various forms of geometric abstraction. Marcel Duchamp, whom she had known since the early 1920s, was employed as a consultant to introduce Peggy Guggenheim to the artists and dealers of the art world. Duchamp taught her a significant amount about contemporary art, its painting methods and styles, and helped to organize several exhibitions held at Guggenheim Jeune.

After staging solo shows for Wassily Kandinsky and Yves Tanguy, as well as a number of group exhibitions featuring the sculptors Constantin Brancusi, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, George Braque, Antoine Pevsner, Henri Laurens, Henry Moore, Kurt Schwitters and Alexander Calder.

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see: Printmaking.


Crying Crocodile Tries to Catch
the Sun (1956) By Karel Appel.
Guggenheim Museum, Venice

Decides To Open Art Museum

The Guggenheim Jeune gallery was well received in the London art world, but its first year showed a financial loss of some £600. This persuaded Peggy Guggenheim to drop the idea of a gallery in favour of launching a museum dedicated to art of the 20th century.

An additional influence, no doubt, was the success of her uncle, two years previously, in establishing the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation in New York. Established to promote the collection of abstract art, it was responsible in 1939 for the opening of the Museum of Non-objective Painting (later renamed Solomon R Guggenheim Museum). In June 1939, therefore, the Guggenheim Jeune was closed, and, in line with her plans for a London Museum of Modern Art, she travelled to France with a list of paintings she intended to purchase. By the time the Germans invaded France in May 1940, she had bought paintings by Picasso, Joan Miro, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Rene Magritte, Paul Klee, Man Ray and others.


New York: Art of This Century Gallery/Museum

In mid-1942, after spending a further 12 months in the South of France, she returned to New York where she opened a new gallery-cum-museum, called Art of This Century. Only one room functioned as a commercial gallery, while the other three were non-commercial spaces showing works which illustrated modernist movements like Cubism, Surrealism and Kinetic art. She also hosted a frenzy of social and networking events, which dazzled the art community and brought young American painters (the so-called "New York School") into contact with the European avant-garde. She was an important collector and patron of talented US artists, notably Jackson Pollock, the leader of abstract expressionism and his style of action painting, and also emigrant modernists like Arshile Gorky. (Guggenheim was such a fan of Jackson Pollock's paintings that she put the artist on a $300/month retainer.) She also promoted the Austrian surrealist Wolfgang Paalen, the influential German emigrant art teacher Hans Hofmann and the German painter Max Ernst, whom she had married in France, in December 1941.

Returns To Europe, Opens Peggy Guggenheim Art Museum

After divorcing Ernst in 1946, she closed The Art of This Century Gallery and returned to Europe, opting to settle in Venice, Italy, where the modernist Guggenheim Venice Art Museum was duly opened in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal.

Permanent Collection Highlights

The museum's permanent collection encompasses many art movements of the first half of the 20th century, like Cubism (1908-14), Futurism (1909-14), Dada (1916-24), De Stijl (1917-31), Surrealism (1924-on), American Abstract Expressionism (c.1947-65), Art Informel (1940s, 50s), Cobra Group (1948-51) and others. Collection highlights include paintings by such famous painters as Gino Severini, Francis Picabia, Wassily Kandinsky, Robert Delaunay, Piet Mondrian, Giorgio de Chirico, Picasso, Paul Klee, Joan Miro, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Rene Magritte, Georges Braque, Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Leger, Alexander Calder, Jean Dubuffet, Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still, and Mark Rothko.

The courtyards and sculpture gardens of the museum contain an extensive collection of three-dimensional works, including a sculpture from the Bird in Space series by Brancusi, works by Alberto Giacometti, Umberto Boccioni, and also the notorious 1948 bronze The Angel of the City by Marino Marini.

Later Years

In her early 60s, Peggy Guggenheim stopped buying art, and focused instead on displaying and preserving the works she already owned. As well as loaning works to other museums, she decided to bequeath her entire collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. She passed away in Padua, at the age of 81. She is buried in Venice, in the garden of her museum.

For more about the people and personalities involved in the evolution of modern painting and sculpture, see: History of Art.

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