A couple years ago, I vacationed in Italy for the first time. I had made arrangements for our destinations; Florence to visit Michelangelo’s statue of David and the Uffizi to view Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
And in Milan, of course, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. The museum I was most excited to visit, though, was the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice.
I was captivated knowing the museum is in her home, the Venier dei Leoni palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice. Guggenheim purchased it in 1949 and lived there until her death in 1979. It seemed so intimate to view art in an actual home, rather than a formal museum setting. And what could be better than a home on the Grand Canal in Venice?
My husband and I walked down narrow alleyways and bridges, through the backsides of various palazzos and apartamentos with their laundry hanging off balconies to dry in the afternoon sun. Relying on the few small brass plaques posted on some street corners, we happened upon an unassuming gate to the palazzo.
The courtyard is green with shrubbery and grass lawns but very spare, which allows all the sculptures in the garden to truly stand out. I sat there in the warm sunlight admiring the statue of Pomonaby Marino Marini. Such a peaceful place to meditate and admire the art and gardens. I was growing a bit envious of Pomona residing in such a lovely place!
Inside, the artwork includes exceptional examples of cubism, European abstraction, surrealism and abstract expressionism.
Guggenheim’s dining table and a sideboard are still on display in the dining room, and some other rooms in the palazzo also have the odd piece of original furnishings scattered about with the artwork.
I really enjoyed viewing the works which were still hanging in the same rooms as when Guggenheim lived there. A few of the rooms had actual photographs of Guggenheim in the same room, sitting amongst her art collection. The view of the Grand Canal from the palazzo windows is breathtaking and dream-like, especially when viewed from an exquisite art-filled room!
After spending the afternoon at this special place, I began to wonder about the woman behind the art. Peggy Guggenheim was born into great wealth. Her father, Benjamin Meyer, and his family made their fortune smelting metals. Her mother, Florette Siegelman, came from a banking family.
Tragically, her father died aboard the Titanic and her mother, an eccentric woman, was not very maternal to her three young daughters. Peggy chafed at her dull and in her words, “bourgeois” upbringing, but not for long.
Equipped with a generous trust fund, Peggy moved to Paris at the age of 21 with her husband Laurence Vail, immediately immersing herself in the world of art. She made it her personal mission to support struggling artists and champion their work. She was very curious sexually and had numerous casual lovers well past middle age which was considered a scandal to many in those days. She thrived on the free-wheeling, bohemian lifestyle of the art world and referred to them as “her people”, perhaps finally finding a sense of belonging
Between 1938 and 1946, Guggenheim set a personal goal for buying one artwork a day. In those days of WWII rumblings, much of modern art was considered junk, thus it was sold at bargain prices.
Peggy liked the modern art movement and as we know today, had a good eye for it. She bought the majority of her collection for about $40,000. Today, these pieces are worth billionsof dollars, and include pieces from artists like Picasso, Miró, Pollock, Brâncuși, and Ernst, to name a few.
In 1938 Guggenheim opened a gallery in London which was met with great public approval. With the war advancing into England, she was forced to close the gallery within a year. Undaunted, she went back to Paris and bought more works while the Germans were quite literally at Paris’s doorstep. In 1941, she returned to New York with the artist Max Ernst (who she would eventually marry), and opened her gallery Art of This Century to wide acclaim.
It was here that her gallery became “the place to be” in the art world, where she hosted many well-known artists like Dalí and Ernst, as well as championing lesser-known artists she felt had talent, including the likes of Jackson Pollock.
After the war, Peggy’s collection was featured at the Venice Biennale. Her exhibit was enthusiastically welcomed by the crowds who had not been able to enjoy modern art under the iron rule of Mussolini. The wide breadth of artists from Picasso, Ernst, Dalí,and newcomer Jackson Pollock, who she claimed was her greatest discovery for the art world, became the must-see show at the event. She went to the Biennale every day with her Lhasa Apsos to watch the crowds enjoy her collection. Her success there solidified her decision to live in Venice.
Peggy remained in Venice for rest of her life, opening her palazzo to the public in summers to view her collection. Chagall, Capote, Dalí and others would enjoy her company as she held court in her home. She became a frequent fixture on the canal, riding in her gondola with her dogs in her lap and flamboyant sunglasses on. Her ashes are interred in a corner of the palazzo courtyard next to the grave of her 14 beloved Lhasa Apso dogs.
Much of her personal life has been under the microscope of scrutiny, diminishing her great contributions to the art world. I don’t think any man of that era and still possibly today, would hear much public outcry over their indiscretions more than their professional works. Whatever her views on traditional relationships, life and politics, her passion for modern art will be forever treasured by the art world.
Guggenheim was a tremendous force in embracing and supporting the Modern Art movement and recognizing it as such. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is one of the most visited destinations in Venice and is considered to be one of the most important in the world. Thanks to Peggy, millions of art was saved and people will continue to enjoy it for years to come.