Marguerite ”Peggy” Guggenheim was born on August 26, 1898 in New York City to Benjamin Guggenheim, a member of the Guggenheim family and Florette Seligman, a member of the Seligman family. Both her parents were of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. They couple also had two other daughters, Benita Rosalind (b.1895) & Barbara Hazel Guggenheim (b.1903).
In 1912, at the age of fourteen she lost her father in the sinking of the Titanic. His body was never recovered.
When she turned 21 in 1919, Peggy inherited US$2.5 million, equivalent to US$39.1 million in 2021. Her father had not amassed the fortune of his siblings and therefore her inheritance was far less than that of her cousins.
Peggy first worked as a clerk in an avant-garde bookstore, the Sunwise Turn, in mid-town Manhattan, where she became enamored of the members of the bohemian artistic community. In 1920 she went to live in Paris, France.
Once there, Peggy became friendly with avant-garde writers and artists, many of whom were living in poverty in the Montparnasse quarter of the city. Man Ray photographed her and was, along with Constantin Brâncuși and Marcel Duchamp, a friend whose art she was eventually to promote.
She became close friends with writer Natalie Barney and artist Romaine Brooks and was a regular at Barney‘s salon. She met Djuna Barnes during this time, and in time became her friend and patron. Barnes wrote her best-known novel, Nightwood, while staying at the Devon country house, Hayford Hall, that Peggy had rented for two summers.
Peggy urged Emma Goldman to write her autobiography and helped to secure funds for her to live in Saint-Tropez, France, while writing her two volume Living My Life. Peggy also wrote her own autobiography entitled Out of This Century, later revised and re-published as Confessions of an Art Addict, which was released in 1946.
Before Word War II
In January 1938, Peggy opened a gallery for modern art in London featuring Jean Cocteau drawings in its first show, and began collecting works of art. She often purchased at least one object from each of her exhibitions at the gallery. After the outbreak of World War II, she purchased as much abstract and Surrealist art as possible.
Her first gallery was called Guggenheim Jeune, the name ingeniously chosen to associate her gallery with both the epitome of a gallery, the French Bernheim-Jeune, and with the name of her own well-known family. The gallery on 30 Cork Street, next to Roland Penrose‘s and E. L. T. Mesens‘ show-case for the Surrealist movement, proved to be successful, thanks to many friends who gave advice and who helped to run the gallery.
Marcel Duchamp, whom she had known since the early 1920s had introduced her to the art world and it was through him that she met many artists during her frequent visits to Paris. He taught Peggy about contemporary art and styles, and he conceived several of the exhibitions held at Guggenheim Jeune.
The Cocteau exhibition was followed by exhibitions of Wassily Kandinsky (his first one-man-show in England), Yves Tanguy, Wolfgang Paalen and several other well-known and some lesser-known artists.
Peggy also held group exhibitions of sculpture and collage, with the participation of the now-classic moderns Antoine Pevsner, Henry Moore, Henri Laurens, Alexander Calder, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Constantin Brâncuși, John Ferren, Jean Arp, Max Ernst, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Kurt Schwitters. She also greatly admired the work of John Tunnard (1900–1971) and is credited with his discovery in mainstream international modernism.
Opening a museum
When Peggy realized that her gallery, although well received, had made a loss of £600 in the first year, she decided to spend her money in a more practical way. A museum for contemporary arts was exactly the institution she could see herself supporting. Most certainly on her mind also were the adventures in New York City of her uncle, Solomon R. Guggenheim, who, with the help and encouragement of artist Baroness Hilla von Rebay, had created the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation two years earlier. The main aim of this foundation had been to collect and to further the production of abstract art, resulting in the opening of the Museum of Non-objective Painting.
Peggy closed Guggenheim Jeune with a farewell party on 22 June 1939, at which colour portrait photographs by Gisèle Freund were projected on the walls. She started making plans for a Museum of Modern Art in London together with the English art historian and art critic Herbert Read. She set aside $40,000 for the museum’s running costs. However, these funds were soon overstretched by the organisers’ ambitions.
In August 1939, Peggy left for Paris to negotiate loans of artworks for the first exhibition. In her luggage was a list drawn up by Herbert Read for this occasion. Shortly after her departure the Second World War broke out, and the events following 1 September 1939 made her abandon the scheme, willingly or not.
She then “decided now to buy paintings by all the painters who were on Herbert Read’s list. Having plenty of time and all the museum’s funds at my disposal, I put myself on a regime to buy one picture a day.”
When finished, she had acquired 10 Picassos, 40 Ernsts, eight Mirós, four Magrittes, four Ferrens, three Man Rays, three Dalís, one Klee, one Wolfgang Paalen and one Chagall, among others. In the meantime, she had also made new plans and in April 1940 had rented a large space in the Place Vendôme as a new home for her museum.
A few days before the Germans reached Paris, Peggy had to abandon her plans for a Paris museum, and fled to the south of France, from where, after months of safeguarding her collection and artist friends, she left Europe for New York in the summer of 1941.
There, in the following year, she opened a new gallery—which actually was in part a museum—at 30 West 57th Street. It was called The Art of This Century. Three of the four galleries were dedicated to Cubist and Abstract art, Surrealism and Kinetic art, with only the fourth, the front room, being a commercial gallery. Peggy held other important shows, such as the show for 31 Women artists, at the gallery.
Her interest in new art was instrumental in advancing the careers of several important modern artists including the American painters Jackson Pollock and William Congdon, the Austrian surrealist Wolfgang Paalen, the sound poet Ada Verdun Howell and the German painter Max Ernst, whom she married in December 1941. Peggy had assembled her collection in only seven years.
After World War II
Following World War II, Peggy closed The Art of This Century Gallery in 1947, and returned to Europe, deciding to live in Venice, Italy. In 1948, she was invited to exhibit her collection in the disused Greek Pavilion of the Venice Biennale and in 1949 established herself in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal.
Her collection became one of the few European collections of modern art to promote a significant number of works by Americans. In the 1950s she promoted the art of two local painters, Edmondo Bacci and Tancredi Parmeggiani.
By the early 1960s, Peggy had almost stopped collecting art and began to concentrate on presenting what she already owned. She loaned out her collection to museums in Europe and in 1969 to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, which was named after her uncle.
Eventually, she decided to donate her home and her collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, a gift which was concluded inter vivos in 1976.
According to both Peggy and her biographer Anton Gill, it was believed that while living in Europe, she had “slept with 1,000 men”. She claimed to have had affairs with numerous artists and writers, and in return many artists and others have claimed affairs with her. When asked by conductor Thomas Schippers how many husbands she had, she replied, “You mean my own, or other people’s?”.
In her autobiography, Peggy provides the names of some of these lovers, including Yves Tanguy, Roland Penrose and E. L. T. Mesens.
Her first marriage was to Laurence Vail, a Dada sculptor and writer with whom she had two children, Michael Cedric Sindbad Vail (b.1923) and Pegeen Vail Guggenheim (b.1925). They divorced in about 1928 following his affair with writer Kay Boyle, whom he later married.
Soon after her first marriage dissolved, she had an affair with John Ferrar Holms, a writer with writer’s block who had been a war hero. Starting in December 1939, she and Samuel Beckett had a brief but intense affair, and he encouraged her to turn exclusively to modern art.
Peggy married her second husband, painter Max Ernst, in 1941 and divorced him in 1946.
Guggenheim lived in Venice in Camposampiero near Padua, Italy, where she died on December 23, 1979, after a stroke.
Her ashes are interred in the garden (later the Nasher Sculpture Garden) of her home, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni (inside the Peggy Guggenheim Collection), next to that of her dogs.