Peggy Guggenheim was, and still is, one of the important women who left a mark on Venice. She was not only an esteemed socialite while she lived in Palazzo Venier dei Leoni along Canal Grande. As an art collector, she also introduced the American modern art to the European art scene. Peggy Guggenheim is known for supporting the careers of some of modern art’s biggest names such as Picasso, Miro and Pollock. Nowadays, the palazzo with her impressive art collection is one of the landmarks in Venice.
In this post, I will first give you a short introduction to the life of Peggy Guggenheim, before I tell you how she developed her collection. Afterwards, you can read about Karole Vail, the current director of the museum and granddaughter of Peggy Guggenheim, and her plans with the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
Peggy Guggenheim (August 26, 1898 – December 23, 1979) is an American with Ashkenazi Jewish roots. Her parents Benjamin Guggenheim and Florette Seligman were descendants from families active in respectively mining and banking. After her father died in the Titanic in 1912, she received a first instalment of her large heritage.
Peggy Guggenheim first worked as a clerk in an avant-garde bookstore before she moved to Europe at the age of 22. She lived a rather bohemian lifestyle in the Montparnasse quarter of Paris. She became close friends with the dadaist Marcel Duchamp, who introduced her to the contemporary art world and artists. Soon, she would be launching many of their careers. Peggy Guggenheim married artist Laurence Vail, with whom she had two children, Sindbad and Pegeen. Her daughter Pegeen Vail became an artist specialized in surrealism and naïve art. You can see some of her work at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. She died tragically at the age of 41. Peggy Guggenheim divorced Laurence Vail who she accused of domestic violence and married the painter and sculptor Max Ernst. Peggy moved to London, but had to flee from the war to the USA.
In 1947, she returned to Europe and settled in Venice. She bought the 18th century Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in Dorsoduro along Canal Grande, where she installed her art collection. It soon became the place to be for artists in Venice. She had many love affairs after her second divorce, but, above all, she mainly adored her 14 little dogs who accompanied her everywhere.
Peggy Guggenheim lived in the palazzo for thirty years. In 1976, three years before her death, she donated her palazzo and art collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation of New York. When Peggy Guggenheim died in 1979, she had been at the centre of the modern art world for nearly half a century. Her ashes are placed in a corner of the garden of her museum, together with her beloved dogs. Her home was then opened to the public as the Peggy Guggenheim Collection.
Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Peggy Guggenheim started collecting art relatively late. In 1938, when she received the second part of her heritage after the death of her mother, she opened the gallery ‘Guggenheim Jeune’ in London. She was already 40 at that time. Even though she was known for her eye for unusual contemporary art, the gallery was loss-making and she had to close it after one year. She then set apart 40,000 $ to start a museum of contemporary art, inspired by her uncle Solomon Guggenheim in New York. When World War II broke out, these plans were cancelled. Instead, she invested the money in 10 paintings by Picasso and 40 paintings by Max Ernst, along with works by Joan Miro, Rene Magritte, Salvador Dali, Paul Klee and Marc Chagall. Back in New York, she started the gallery ‘Art of This Century’ where she continued to build her collection.
In 1947, Peggy Guggenheim decided to return to Europe, where her collection was shown for the first time at the 1948 Biennale. She was invited to exhibit in the Greek pavilion which was unused at that time. It was a great opportunity to share American surrealism, dadaism, cubism and abstract expressionism with the European art connoisseurs. With 136 works from her private collection on display, the exhibition included sculptures by Alberto Giacometti, paintings by Jean Arp and Max Ernst, and mobile-like fixtures from Piet Mondrian.
Her collection was later exhibited in Florence, Milan, Amsterdam, Brussels and Zurich. From 1951, she regularly opened her house and collection to the public. It was this habit that led to the opening of the museum as we know it now. During her 30 years in Venice, she continued to collect works of art and to support artists, such as Edmondo Bacci and Tancredi Parmeggiani.
After her death, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection opened for the first time under the management of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in 1980. The museum is very comprehensible and immerses you in European and American art of the first half of the 20th century. It’s not only targeted towards art lovers. It’s actually perfect as an introduction into modern art for visitors who want to discover a variety of important artists and genres. It’s also a pleasant environment and really feels like a home. You can easily imagine Peggy Guggenheim having lunch in the garden at the stone pergola.
Palazzo Venier dei Leoni
Peggy Guggenheim’s beautiful palazzo is located along Canal Grande in the Dorsoduro sestieri. You can easily recognize the long façade from Istrian stone when you cross Canal Grande with the vaporetto. The construction was probably started in the 1750s by architect Lorenzo Boschetti, who also built the church of San Barnaba. When Peggy bought it, the palazzo was still unfinished with only a ground floor.
The Venier family was one of the oldest Venetian noble families. Over the centuries, they provided 18 San Marco Procurators and 3 Doges. From 1910 to 1924, the palazzo was owned by the flamboyant Marchesa Luisa Casati, hostess to the Ballets Russes, and the subject of numerous portraits by artists as various as Boldini, Troubetzkoy, Man Ray and Augustus John.
Her private gondola
Peggy Guggenheim had the habit of making a daily tour around Venice in her private gondola at 4 pm. This was the time her friends started showing up to join her and her dogs. When she left, she unscrewed the phallus of the great bronze Marino Marini sculpture as a sign that she wasn’t home. I’m not sure whether this is true or not, but it’s certainly a great story to intrigue you to admire the ‘Angel of the City’ statue on the terrace along Canal Grande. Her gondola tour lasted approx. 1 hour, which was when the dogs had to go out of the gondola to pee.
Her gondola had a cabin which could be put on top of it if she wanted privacy. Her gondoliers wore striped shirts with white and turquoise. The pali da casada before the palazzo have recently been repainted in this original colour (more about this tradition in my post ‘These colourful poles are an underestimated landmark of Venice’). I love this vibrant colour, and not only because it’s the same as the blue in my logo. By the time she died, hers was the last private gondola in Venice. You will soon be able to admire it again in the Museo Navale (more information in my post ‘A secret itinerary from Palazzo Ducale to Giardini).
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection was managed by Philip Rylands for 37 years, since the death of Peggy Guggenheim. When he retired in 2017, he was succeeded by Karole Vail. The granddaughter of Peggy Guggenheim and daughter of Sindbad Vail has been surrounded by art since she was a child. One of the anecdotes which I like a lot is that when she visited her grandmother in Venice, she would join her on a private gondola tour. When they stopped at a church, Karole had to go inside, look at the art and come back to tell her grandmother about it. This laid the foundation of her interest in art.
Karole Vail received a bachelor in Arts at the Durham University in England and a diploma in Art History from the New Academy for Art Studies in London. After her studies, she worked as an archivist and researcher at Centro Di in Florence, as an assistant curator on independent projects and, since 1997, as curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. In 1998, she organized an exhibition about her grandmother ‘Peggy Guggenheim: A Centennial Celebration’. The catalogue is still available for sale.
In 2017, Karole Vail followed in the steps of her grandmother and moved from New York to Venice. It’s a big change from a hectic cosmopolitan city to Venice, but one that she loves. Karole Vail wants to continue the legacy of Peggy Guggenheim and focus more time on research about the collection.
The future of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection
The Peggy Guggenheim Collection always shows a large part of Peggy Guggenheim’s collection, but even when you visit it regularly, it will never cease to amaze you. Karole Vail finds it important to regularly reinvent the collection by playing with it and moving it around. The museum also organizes temporary exhibitions, such as those on Peggy Guggenheim’s exhibition at the Art Biennale or on Josef Albers in Mexico which are now ongoing. Finally, there are also many special events such as spritz evenings during the summer, workshops dedicated to an audience that is blind or with impaired sight and educational programs for children.
The exhibition ‘1948: The Biennale of Peggy Guggenheim’ runs in parallel with the 2018 Architecture Biennale, so you can still visit it until November 25. It’s wonderful to see the pictures of the 24th Art Biennale and of Peggy with her daughter and many famous artists. You can also see a model of the exhibition in the Greek pavilion. 11 paintings by Jackson Pollock from her private collection are shown together for the first time. If you like the Biennale or you want to better understand the art world at that time, this will put it in perspective for you.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the death of Peggy Guggenheim, many events are being planned for next year. The first few months will focus on her pre-war collection, while the acquisitions that she made once she settled in Venice will be on display at the end of the year. This will include the Italian artists Vedova, Santomaso, Tancredi and Bacci, the British artists from the 50s including Graham Sutherland and Francis Bacon and sculptors like Henry Moore. 2019 will therefore be a unique opportunity to discover more of Peggy Guggenheim’s collection. Make sure to keep an eye on this page for updates or subscribe to our biweekly newsletter.
If you want to read more about Peggy Guggenheim, I can suggest the following books: ‘Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern’ by Francine Prose or ‘The Unfinished Palazzo: Life, Love and Art in Venice’ of Judith Mackrell. The 2015 documentary ‘Art Addict: Peggy Guggenheim’ shows you a glimpse of her life and is certainly also worth watching.
To continue your walk in the neighbourhood of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, you can find more inspiration in my post ‘Dorsoduro: An amazing tour of intriguing architecture’.
Enjoy your visit!
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