Women We Love: Peggy Guggenheim

©Collage/Julia Zierer

Peggy Guggenheim, the eccentric arts patron and offspring of the Guggenheim dynasty, seems to be on everyone’s lips this spring. This week the documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict will be released in German cinemas. In addition Montblanc has created three strictly limited editions of their fountain pen, dedicated to the icon – one more spectacular than the other. Reason enough, to take a closer look: who exactly was Peggy Guggenheim?

Peggy Guggenheim, was born In New York City on 26 August 1898 as the second of three daughters. Her father came from one of the wealthiest industrialist families of New York and later lost his life on the Titanic, when Peggy was only 13 years old. Her uncle was Solomon R. Guggenheim, industrialist and art collector, who founded the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation.

At legal age she obtained a relatively small inheritance (she came from the less wealthy branch of the family dynasty), enabling her financial independence, that she cleverly retained from this time on.

She then moved to Paris, where she plunged into the bustle of the european metropolis and quickly became friends with artists like Djuna Barnes, Man Ray, Giacometti, Miró and Marcel Duchamp. The latter introduced her to the avantgardist art scene.

At the age of 24 she married the sculptor Laurence Vail, with whom she had two children.

After eight years the couple split. She fell in love with the author John Holms, who passed away unexpectedly while undergoing a harmless surgical procedure. In retrospect she called him the love of her life.

Her affairs, for instance with Samuel Beckett, became legendary. So did her free spirit. In her late thirties she began collecting art and became the person who we associate with the name Peggy Guggenheim, who still keeps us under her spell, to date.

Not only, did she start to buy works by the likes of Brâncuși, Braque, Chagall, Kandinsky or Mondrian early on, but she was also one of the first people to concede their craft as art. Often she was interested in their personality at first, and later followed up on their work. For example she got to know Jackson Pollock in her uncle’s museum, where he worked as a carpenter. In this respect she ‘saved him’ from his old existence (to describe it in her own words) and introduced him to a brand new world. She supported him and other artists financially, by paying for their colors and other equipment so they could concentrate on their craft. She bought their works and exhibited them, which is why she played a key role in their way to success as acclaimed artists. Simultaneously she managed to assemble one of the world’s most significant art collections. Her greatest passion was the oeuvre of the surrealists and cubists, as well as abstract art in general.  

Not until 39 she opened her first gallery, called Guggenheim Jeune, in London – namely with an exhibition about Jean Cocteau’s drawings of male nudes. Several exhibitions followed, featuring works by Wassily Kandinsky or Yves Tanguy. And there also was a group exhibition about sculptures and collages, also initiated by her.

Lucian Freud had his first solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Jeune. And although the gallery was quite popular it wasn’t financially sustainable, which led to Peggy’s decision to return to Paris.  

When she arrived in Paris, World War II was in full progress. Guggenheim first flew to the South of France, than back to the US. Still, the word “flew” doesn’t seem to fit quite properly, because it presupposes fear. And Peggy Guggenheim repeatedly said about herself, that fear was alien to her nature. Perhaps one might say: as she was of jewish origin she decided to emigrate to New York in 1941 because of the Persecution of the Jews in Europe. Yet before, she helped jewish artists in danger as well as those who were persecuted for other reasons (including their families) to leave Europe. Among them were Marc Chagall, André Breton and Max Ernst.

Back in New York she married Max Ernst and established another gallery, that was also a museum, equipped by the architect Friedrich Kiesler. The marriage to Max Ernst didn’t last long, because he fell in love with the American artist Dorothea Tanning, whom he met, of all things, at the ‘Exhibition by 31 women’ which was organised by Peggy herself. She commented on this issue with unperturbed humour: “I probably should have done an exhibition with only 30 women.”

After divorcing from Max Ernst she decided to return to Europe and settled down in Venice, when she was invited there in 1948, to exhibit her art at the Biennale. Right next to the Canale Grande, she bought a one-storied, unfinished palazzo, which is now known as the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. There she lived until her death in 1979 and there she’s buried together with her two dogs.

When she moved into this extraordinary palazzo, she first used it as an exhibition space for her impressive collection. It was always important to her, not to follow an institutional idea, but to stay ‘personal’ – in relation to the selection of art, but also in her general attitude. She did not play by the rules and led a turbulent, entirely unconventional life – yet, remained true to herself until the end.

Furthermore she had learned to surround herself with people, who broadened her horizon in all imaginable directions, which is why she chose none other than Marcel Duchamp to be her mentor and closest advisor. Her readiness and her willingness to develop further, to learn, to be advised and to become involved are not only remarkable but also admirable and justify a good deal of her success. Her free spirit and the unconventional way of thinking and taking action, her manner of creating her own set of rules (that are meant to be broken, anyway) as well as her courage to throw her weight into the balance, do not only make her a historical rebel, but also a woman we love.  


Birte Carolin Sebastian studied comparative literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and received her doctorate on the reception of Goethe in Munich. Today she lives between Berlin and London, where she works as a freelance writer and actress. Her work has been published in Zeit, FAZ, Vogue, and ICON Magazine. In her acting career, she appeared as the only German actress in the recently aired, Spanish language Arte production Capitan Alatriste as well as in the feature film Lou Andreas Salomé.