Peggy Guggenheim in Venice

The Collectors: Peggy Guggenheim’s 20th century masterpieces

Philip Rylands, Director of the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, explains how this collector of 20th century masterpieces began her great passion – and shares his personal favourites

Hear the name ‘Hearst’, you think ‘Newspapers’; ‘Hitchcock’ – movies. And with art one name immediately speaks volumes: ‘Guggenheim’.

Born of a family of philanthropists, Solomon Guggenheim is partly responsible for that with his foundation and its museums in New York, Las Vegas, Berlin, Bilbao and, shortly, Abu Dhabi.

Yet more than one Guggenheim was active in saving masterpieces of art for present generations: Solomon’s niece, Peggy, assembled a collection of some of the most celebrated and important works of the early 20th century.

Creative Circles

Peggy was born in New York in 1898. Her father, Benjamin Guggenheim, was one of seven brothers who, with their father, had amassed a fortune by mining and smelting silver, copper and lead. Her mother, Florette Seligman, was from a prominent family of bankers. Benjamin died on the Titanic in 1912.

After moving to Paris in 1921 with her husband, Laurence Vail, Peggy joined the smart American expat set and became friends with celebrated artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Constantin Brancusi.

Encouraged by her creative friends, Peggy started buying art and opened her first gallery in London in 1938. Her first exhibition was by Jean Cocteau; the second was the first London show of Vasily Kandinsky.

But the gallery was not enough for her. A year later, she decided to create a museum of masterpieces that would outlive her. She appointed her friend Herbert Reed as its director and set about buying artworks.

Lofty Goals

It was this goal of a museum that influenced her choices of art and led to the quality of the eventual collection, says Philip Rylands, Director of the Peggy Guggenheim Museum.

“The collection was first conceived as a museum, not for Venice but London. Two of Peggy’s most important counsellors (and friends) at that time were Marcel Duchamp and Herbert Read, each of whom contributed a detached objectivity to contemporary vanguard currents that enabled her to acquire art (and to develop her taste) in a non-partisan way, as was befitting for a museum.”

With a brazen disregard for the war, Peggy busily acquired works by Piet Mondrian, Salvador Dali­ and Georges Braque, among others – apparently, she bought Fernand Leger’s Men in the City on the same day that the Nazis invaded Norway.

However, she was eventually forced to leave Paris in 1941 and fled back to New York with Max Ernst, who was to become her second husband. But she was determined to continue collecting, and set about finding a location for her new museum of contemporary art.

In 1942 she opened the Art of This Century gallery in New York, which exhibited her collection of abstract, surrealist and cubist art, as well as works by emerging artists such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. It quickly became a hub of the art world.

Historical Palette

“The conspicuous qualities of Peggy Guggenheim’s collection rest in its broadly representative historical character (Cubism, European abstraction, Dada, pittura metafisica, Surrealism, the early work of the American Abstract Expressionists, avant-garde sculpture, and some post-war American and European art,” says Philip Rylands.

“So comprehensive is this survey that, allowing for the fact that Peggy declared her exclusion of ‘realistic’ art (Morandi? Neusachlichkeit? Hopper?), it gives the illusion of a finite number of ‘gaps’ – Matisse, London Vorticism, Viennese Kinetismus, Czech Cubism, German Expressionism, and so forth.”

Peggy took some of her collection of avant-garde American art to the Venice Biennale of 1948, and was a sensation, wowing the Europeans with works by the New York School – artists who would dominate the 1950s. The event was so successful that Peggy determined to stay in Venice, and bought the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal. The collection has been housed there ever since.

At the Palazzo, Peggy became honorary royalty, welcoming major artists, celebrities and dignitaries from all over the world. Her bedroom was turquoise and overlooked the Grand Canal; she hung her collection of earrings on the wall along with works by Francis Bacon, Laurence Vail and Franz von Lenbach. She often posed for photographers on a marble throne she had installed in the garden, which was the largest in Venice. The Palazzo was the place to be if you were anyone.

Peggy donated her collection to the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation in 1976, stipulating that it remained in Venice. She died in 1979, aged 81.

Masterpieces Galore

Because of her tastes and patronage, guided by artists and collectors in the 1940s, a “crucial” decade for art in the USA, says Rylands, the collection is important not only for its historical value but for the works it contains.

“Many of the works (astonishingly numerous given the relative smallness of the collection) could be classified as masterpieces, allowing for the subjective nature of any such definition: Brancusi – Maiastr; Picabia - Tres rare tableau sur la terre; Ernst - La Toilette de la mariee and Le Baiser; Pollock - Moon Woman and Alchemy; Severini - Mare = Ballerina; De Chirico –  La Tour rouge and La Nostalgie du poete; Dali­ – La Naissance des desires liquides; Magritte – L’Empire des lumieres; Picasso – La Baignade and L’Atelier; Marini – L’angelo della cittadella, to mention some at random.

“One could also add Miro’s Femme assise II and Gorky’s Untitled painting of 1944. Four major artists are represented in depth (that is, with several works): Picasso, Giacometti, Ernst and Pollock. Pollock was, for Peggy, her single most important achievement – a discovery she shared with James Johnson Sweeney.”

These works Rylands counts as personal favourites, not just because of their importance but also because they represent Peggy Guggenheim’s place in the development of America’s first major art movement, Abstract Expressionism.

“Apart from their intrinsic qualities, they testify to Peggy’s judgment and help to assure the museum’s successes.”

In this, the 30th year of the museum, in addition to two exhibitions in Venice, two shows celebrate Peggy as a collector. The PGC is also running a campaign to acquire photographs of Peggy, especially those by celebrated photographers.

Long-term plans for the collection include financial security and possible expansion, says Rylands.

“The plans for the museum are a consolidated position as a destination for all visitors to Venice and centre for educational activities and programmes for the local community, the ongoing promotion of Peggy Guggenheim herself, and sustaining the museum’s vitality, which implies growing collections, which, in turn, may mean further expansion.”


The Peggy Guggenheim Collection consists of her collection plus other works donated since her death, as well as the Gianni Mattioli Collection and the Nasher Sculpture Garden. The 30th anniversary year of its opening in Venice is being celebrated with various meetings and events.

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