Peg­gy Guggen­heim: The Shock of the Modern

  • Review
By – September 24, 2015

Over the course of her 81 years (18981979), Peg­gy Guggen­heim amassed art and finan­cial­ly sus­tained artists, despite the tur­moil often found in her life.

Born into a world of priv­i­lege, she suf­fered the loss of her father, a pas­sen­ger on the Titan­ic. While she lis­tened to advi­sors fol­low­ing his death, she bought mod­ern paint­ings to sat­is­fy her own taste. Less than halfway into the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Peg­gy opened her first art gallery in New York, the Art of This Cen­tu­ry Gallery. One crit­ic not­ed that she helped shape the con­tem­po­rary art world, turn­ing artists into celebri­ties and socialites into art collectors. 

Almost sin­gle-hand­ed­ly, she intro­duced Amer­i­can Abstract Expres­sion­ism to Europe, cul­mi­nat­ing in her last-minute res­cue of her per­son­al col­lec­tion of Nazi-termed degen­er­ate art” as the Sec­ond World War began. Ful­ly aware of her role, Peg­gy Guggen­heim iden­ti­fied that she was not an art col­lec­tor. I am a museum.”

One of her most notable acts of char­i­ty was her dona­tion of 500,000₣ (pos­si­bly more) to Var­i­an Fry’s Emer­gency Res­cue Com­mit­tee in Vichy, 1940. When the removal of her art­work from her Paris home became urgent, as the Ger­man inva­sion of France was immi­nent, and the Lou­vre declined to hide her hold­ings — Leg­er, Kandin­sky, Klee, Picabia, Dali, Miro, Bran­cusi and Duchamp — with its own col­lec­tion, judg­ing them to be too mod­ern, Duchamp sug­gest­ed pack­ing his box­es” among her per­son­al pos­ses­sions ship­ping to New York, thus sav­ing the collection.

She and Solomon Guggen­heim were first cousins; he fig­ures lit­tle in this biog­ra­phy. Described by a con­tem­po­rary as a rich and way­ward woman with a fine­ly tuned eye for art, Peg­gy was full of irony and sur­prise, nev­er hes­i­tat­ing to name all her lovers and occa­sion­al bed­mates when she pub­lished her mem­oir, Out of This Cen­tu­ry. She mar­ried twice, and pro­duced chil­dren no less col­or­ful than their mother.

Since Solomon Guggen­heim had built his self-named muse­um in New York, at the end of her days Peg­gy Guggen­heim select­ed an eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry palaz­zo in Venice as the per­ma­nent home for her art trea­sures, as dur­ing her long life­time, she had been hap­pi­est in Venice.

This book is part of the Jew­ish Lives series of Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press. Note on sources, bibliography.

Relat­ed Content:

Arlene B. Soifer earned degrees in Eng­lish, and has had many years of expe­ri­ence as a free­lance writer, edi­tor, and pub­lic rela­tions professional.

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