When I vacationed in Italy for the first time, I created a list of destinations around the art I wanted to see. Florence introduced me to Michelangelo’s statue of David in the Accademia, and in the Uffizi, I embraced Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
When in Milan, of course, I only had eyes for da Vinci’s The Last Supper. But of all the museums, I was most excited about Peggy Guggenheim’s Collection in Venice. I was captivated knowing the museum is in her home, the Venier dei Leoni palazzo on the Grand Canal in Venice.
Peggy purchased the palazzo 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?
The journey to Peggy’s home began with a walk down narrow alleyways and bridges and through the backsides of various palazzos and apartamentos with laundry hanging off balconies to dry in the afternoon sun. Relying on the few small brass plaques posted on some street corners, my husband and I happened upon an unassuming gate to the palazzo.
The inviting courtyard was green with shrubbery and spare grass lawns to accommodate the sculptures in the garden. I took a moment to sit in the warm sunlight admiring the statue of Pomona by Marino Marini. This peaceful place to meditate and admire the art made me envious of Pomona residing in such a lovely place!
Inside Peggy Guggenheim’s home, the artwork included exceptional examples of cubism, European abstraction, surrealism and abstract expressionism.
Peggy’s original dining table and a sideboard are still on display with odd pieces of original furnishings in other rooms scattered amongst the artwork.
Seeing the artwork still hanging in the same rooms as they did when Peggy lived there made the experience intimate and enjoyable. A few of the rooms even had actual photographs of Peggy in sitting amongst her art collection.
The view of the Grand Canal from the palazzo windows is breathtaking and dreamy enough for me to imagine the years of stories that we may never know about Peggy’s life. There are accounts vividly capture in Djuna Barnes’s novel, Nightwood. Djuna spent a period of her life living in Peggy’s home.
After spending the afternoon at this special place, I wondered about the woman behind the art. Peggy Guggenheim was born into great wealth yet her life was not what people expected.
Her father, Benjamin Meyer, and his family made their fortune smelting metals. Many people don’t know that Peggy’s father died tragically, aboard the Titanic, and left this branch of the Guggenheim family with less wealth.
Peggy’s mother, Florette Siegelman, came from a banking family and was an eccentric woman. She was not very maternal to her three young daughters and Peggy often felt neglected as a child.
While Peggy chafed at what she considered her dull and “bourgeois” upbringing, she was determined this would not rule her life. Equipped with a generous trust fund likely worth about between $5-10 million dollars in today’s world, Peggy moved to Paris at the age of twenty-one to build a life with her husband, Laurence Vail.
Immediately, Peggy immersed herself in the world of art. She made it her personal mission to support struggling artists and championed their work with her keen eye for talent. Nothing was too much for Peggy who even supported some of these artists like Jackson Pollack by guaranteeing them an advanced salary so they could focus on their art and quite their day jobs.
Something quite unusual at the time was also Peggy’s very curious sexual drive. She thought nothing of taking numerous casual lovers as she traveled and amassed a growing collection of art. Her lifestyle and sexual encounters well past middle age were considered scandalous in those days. But Peggy thrived on a free-wheeling, bohemian lifestyle of the art world and referred to artists as “her people.” Perhaps in this world Peggy had finally found a sense of belonging.
Between 1938 and 1946, Guggenheim set a personal goal of buying one artwork a day. During WWII, modern art was considered junk so it was sold at bargain prices.
Peggy loved the modern art movement and purchased the majority of her collection for about $40,000. Today, her collection is worth billions of dollars, and includes pieces from artists like Picasso, Miró, Pollock, Brâncuși, Pollack, and Ernst, to name a few.
In 1938, Guggenheim opened a gallery in London that was met with great fanfare and public approval. But with the war advancing into England, she was forced to close it a year later. Undaunted, she went back to Paris and bought more works as the Germans were quite literally at Paris’s doorstep.
In 1941, Peggy returned to New York with the artist Max Ernst (who she would eventually marry), and opened a gallery called Art of This Century to wide acclaim. It was here that her gallery became “the place to be” in the art world. She hosted many well-known artists like Dalí and Ernst, and championed lesser-known artists with 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 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.
Every day, Peggy went to the Biennale with her Lhasa Apsos dogs to watch the crowds enjoy her collection. Her success here solidified her decision to live in Venice for the rest of her life. In the summer that followed, Peggy generously opened her palazzo to the public. Great artists like Chagall, Capote, Dalí and others would enjoy her company as she held court in her home. Peggy became a frequent fixture on the canal, riding in her gondola with her dogs in her lap and dawning a flamboyant sunglasses perched atop her nose.
When Peggy died in December of 1979, her ashes were interred in a corner of the palazzo courtyard next to the grave of her 14 beloved Lhasa Apso dogs. While much of her personal life has been scrutinized, it can never diminish her contributions to the art world. I don’t think any of the men of that era, and possibly today, ever endured the same public scrutiny and outcry over their sexual dalliances. We know for example that gondoliers still rave about the conquests of Casanova who is greatly admired for the hundreds of lovers he took in Venice.
Whatever her views on traditional relationships, life and politics, Peggy Guggenheim’s passion for modern art will be forever treasured by the art world. She was a tremendous force embracing and supporting the Modern Art movement and The Peggy Guggenheim Collection remains one of the most visited destinations in Venice and the world.