When it comes to dedicating one’s life to art, Peggy Guggenheim’s focus on the task in hand has to be almost unrivalled. Not for nothing were her memoirs called “Confessions of an Art Addict.” Known as the Mistress of Modernism, Peggy championed artists from the 1930’s onwards, dedicating her time and resources to compiling one of the most famous collections of modern art in the world. Couple that with her eccentric style and a lifestyle as radical as the art she loved, and it is no wonder she is thought of as one of the most fascinating women of her generation.
For Peggy (her real name was Marguerite,) it all started in New York in 1898 as the daughter of Ben Guggenheim and an instant heiress (her uncle Solomon founded the Guggenheim museum.) Her father died in the sinking of the Titanic, leaving Peggy a fortune that may have been small by Guggenheim standards but that provided an income large enough to set her on course for life as a patron. Her interest in the world of artists and intellectuals was piqued by a stint working at the avant-garde New York bookshop Sunwise Turn and confirmed by a trip to Paris, where she married her first husband the artist and writer Laurence Vail in 1922. Theirs was a tumultuous marriage that produced two children and saw her leaving him in 1928, but he introduced her to Europe’s bohemian set of artists and writers, stoking her knowledge of and appetite for the art world and a passion from which she never looked back.
Peggy’s first gallery opened in London’s Cork Street in 1938, exhibiting Jean Cocteau, Vasily Kandinsky and Henry Moore whilst she set about amassing her own collection. One of her most famous spending sprees came after the outbreak of World War II when she resolved to buy, “a picture a day,” including works by Miro, Magritte, Dali, Braque and Picasso and Mondrian. In 1941, she left occupied France for Manhattan, opening a museum-gallery in New York, exhibiting artists and promoting unknowns – among them Jackson Pollock. She gave him his first solo show, supported him financially and commissioned his largest painting, a Mural. She later wrote that her discovery of him was, “by far the most honourable achievement,” of her life.
Peggy with Jackson Pollock in front of the piece she commissioned from him, Mural, in 1973
Not only did Peggy Guggenheim promote art that, at the time, was considered provocative, she lived provocatively too. With a fondness for collecting dogs (Lhasa Apsos were her breed of choice) and men as well as art, she married twice, and was famous for her endless lovers – saying once, when asked how many husbands she’d had, “Do you mean mine, or other people’s?” She fostered her own inimitable style, fond of flamboyant earrings which she displayed on her bedroom walls, and gowns by Fortuny. She commissioned the artist Edward Malcarth to create her signature batwing and butterfly glasses – which became in her later life as synonymous with her look as her slick of red lipstick and pouf of white hair.
Peggy in her bedroom, with her earrings hanging on her wall as the sculpture she commissioned by Alexander Calder behind her bed
Peggy on her terrace, wearing a gown by Fortuny
Peggy bought the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in Venice in 1949 and lived in it for thirty years. Named after the lion heads that decorate its façade, Peggy transformed it into a gallery and museum whilst it was still her home. During the summer months, when it was open to the public, visitors used to roam her private rooms crammed with art whilst she hid from the crowds, sometimes sunbathing naked on the roof above them. She commissioned Alexander Calder to create a sculpture that hung above the bed in her turquoise walled bedroom and displayed sculptures by Brancusi and Giacometti in the gardens. She had the American sculptor and painter Claire Falkenstein create the main gates to the compound, featuring welded iron rods wound around pieces of Venetian glass. Her library featured white leatherette sofas (all the better for keeping clean since her beloved dogs used to sit on them,) and black and white fur rugs, whilst the dining room housed Venetian furniture and cubist paintings on the walls. She lived in luxury, filling the palazzo with endless staff, throwing parties until the end and commissioning one of the last private gondolas in Venice, giving life to the fabulous images still famous today of her cruising the canals in her signature sunglasses, draped in jewelry and dogs.
Peggy in her famous glasses in her private gondola
Peggy in her living room
Peggy Guggenheim died aged 81 in 1979. Her ashes were placed in the Palazzo’s garden, next door to where she had buried her beloved dogs. She had said before she died, “I look back on my life with great joy. I think it was a very successful life. I always did what I wanted and never cared what anyone thought. Women’s lib? I was a liberated woman long before there was a name for it.” Liberated, outrageous and utterly fabulous, Peggy Guggenheim was certainly a total one off.
Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, where Peggy Guggenheim lived