For Women’s History Month, I thought I would write about somebody who was instrumental in preserving many works of modern art. I am by no means an expert on Peggy Guggenheim, but her name has cropped up in several books I’ve read about the birth of modern art and, in particular, Surrealism. What stood out to me was her passion for art and her friend’s creative pursuits. But, as this short piece will tell you, her patronage of key movements such as Surrealism, Cubism and Abstractionism changed the fate of many paintings.
On the 26th of August 1898, Peggy Guggenheim had the good fortune to be born into a wealthy family residing in New York. Her father Benjamin Guggenheim had, along with his brothers, procured their finances through the mining and smelting of metals. Her mother Florette was also no stranger to affluence as part of the Seligman family who had made their money in the world of investment.
Being born into a privileged position in society allowed Peggy Guggenheim to travel and collect vast amounts of art along the way, perhaps taking inspiration from her uncle Solomon R. Guggenheim. She moved to Paris in the 1920s where she became involved with the avant-garde artists living in Montparnasse and later married Max Ernst a prominent Surrealist.
Whilst in Paris she educated herself about various movements, gathering one of the largest and most significant collections in modern art. Her collection ranged from works by Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) to Jean Cocteau (1889–1963) to Yves Tanguy (1900–1955). In the years after the outbreak of the Second World War (1939–1945), she set up her first art gallery in London, Guggenheim Jeune. This was soon followed by her New York Gallery, Art of the Century. The establishment of both galleries created a platform for artists who were little known in England and the United States to exhibit their work.
It’s interesting that, at the time, many of her contemporaries in the art world weren’t too interested in the art of the moment which included Surrealist, Cubist, and Abstract Art. The same could not be said for Peggy Guggenheim whose collection expanded to incorporate the works of Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Salvador Dalí (1904–1989), and Georges Braque (1882- 1963).
Her patronage of these creatives is significant due to the fact that she saved many works of art from being lost from the pages of history. The rise of Nazism and its expansion into Europe saw the destruction of what had been deemed Degenerate Art. The term covered the majority of modernist works, including German-born painters such as Franz Marc who had given their lives in service of their country during the First World War (1914–1918). Peggy Guggenheim was all too aware of this growing threat and shipped her collection, which was located in Paris at the time, to New York under the guise of packed household goods. There she set up a community for artists to network.
Peggy Guggenheim’s passion for art saved many paintings which have become significant in art historiography and also helped to maintain the livelihoods of creatives who had been deemed degenerate by the Nazi Regime.
In later life, she settled in Venice and continued to exhibit her vast collection to the public. Founded in 1951 and situated in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, on the Grand Canal, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is one of the most popular attractions in Venice and can still be visited today.
Peggy Guggenheim died in 1979 but the legacy she left behind lives on. Her collection continues to inspire and educate those who visit it. It’s safe to say that without her continued support, many of the artworks loved and admired by the public today would not have survived the Second World War.
This has been a very short introduction to Peggy Guggenheim and her significance to the History of Art. I hope that this small article encourages anybody reading this to explore her work further.
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