Peggy Guggenheim was not the most important patron of modern art in the twentieth century. Other collectors such as Katherine Dreier and Etta Cone collected longer and more diligently than Guggenheim did. But Peggy Guggenheim is the only patron of the arts to become a celebrity. Her patronage began in the bohemia of between-the-wars Paris and ended in the jet-set 1960s, ensuring that she makes an appearance in the lives of such chroniclers of the demimonde as Truman Capote and Gore Vidal. She is also one of the few philanthropists to be regularly portrayed in movies, including An American in Paris and Pollock.
Anton Gill’s life of Peggy Guggenheim is judicious, well-written, and occasionally superficial. Gill is an experienced British writer who occasionally contributes to the London Spectator. His efficient telling of Guggenheim’s life is not only entertaining but also offers some valuable lessons to donors.
Marguerite Guggenheim (who was always known as Peggy) was born in New York City in 1898. Her family made a fortune from mining and later donated vast sums to set up foundations, most notably the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. But Peggy Guggenheim’s father was Benjamin Guggenheim, who made the mistake of quitting the family business before the Guggenheims rose from being millionaires to multi-millionaires. As a result, he had some money, but far less than if he had remained friendly with his brothers.
Benjamin Guggenheim died in 1912 on the Titanic; he was the first-class passenger who, legend has it, put on evening clothes and resolved to die like a gentleman. He left three trusts of about $250,000 each to Peggy Guggenheim and her two sisters, which they could not draw on until they reached age 21.These trusts were refreshed by an additional $250,000 left by Peggy Guggenheim’s mother, Florette, when she died in 1937.
Apparently (Gill is not clear on this point) Peggy Guggenheim never touched the capital of her trusts. As a result, she never spent more than $25,000 on art in any year and only spent about $350,000 in her lifetime. But Gill estimates that the value of her collection is now at least $350 million.
When Guggenheim reached age 21 in 1919, she did what many Americans of her generation did and fled to Paris, where the cost of living was low and the probability of immoral adventure high. Peggy Guggenheim boasted of her numerous lovers; when someone asked her how many husbands she had, she responded, “Mine or other people’s?”
As someone with a trust fund, Guggenheim found herself surrounded by scores of new friends, including self-proclaimed “King of Bohemia” Laurence Vail. She married Vail and had two children, Pegeen and Sindbad. She also supported Vail as he dabbled in unreadable modern fiction when he occasionally emerged from a near-perpetual booze-induced haze.
By the early 1930s, Vail had drifted away from Peggy Guggenheim, though they were not formally divorced for a decade. She then had a succession of lovers, most notably Douglas Garman, a militant communist who demanded that she prove her love by joining the Communist Party. The Party, however, refused to give her a card because she was not a worker. Only when she convinced the Communists that motherhood was unpaid full-time work did she officially become a Communist. (She had no interest in politics, however, and dropped her party membership as soon as she broke up with Garman in 1937.)
In 1937, Peggy Guggenheim was between relationships. She had always been interested in modern art and decided to launch a gallery featuring the leading artists of the day. This was a radical move. Except for Picasso, there was no market for contemporary art. In fact, when Peggy Guggenheim tried to import some sculptures and collages from France to England, British customs authorities, acting on the advice of leading London curators, declared that the sculptures were “not art” and charged the higher import duty imposed on stone and metal.
Peggy Guggenheim’s London gallery, Guggenheim Jeune, opened in 1938 and closed in 1939. When she began her career as a dealer, she tried to sell some paintings by Wassily Kandinsky to Baroness Hilla Rebay, the woman who convinced Solomon R. Guggenheim to stop collecting Old Masters and start buying modern art. “Dear Mrs. Guggenheim ‘jeune,’” Rebay responded, “We do not ever buy from any dealer, as long as great artists offer their work for sale themselves. . .. It is extremely distasteful at this moment, when the name of Guggenheim stands for an ideal in art, to see it used for commerce so as to give the wrong impression, as if this great philanthropic work was intended to be a useful boost to some small shop.” The battle between Peggy Guggenheim and the baroness only ended when Hilla Rebay died in 1967.
Guggenheim then returned to Paris, where she dreamed of launching her own museum. As World War II began, she helped artists in two ways. First, she bought work, giving them hard currency that helped them flee the Nazis. She also, with the aid of the great American diplomat Varian Fry, personally helped about two dozen artists escape France for freedom in America.
Having settled in New York for the duration of the war, Guggenheim then opened her own gallery, “Art of this Century,” in 1942. Aided by an innovative design created by Frederick Kiesler, Guggenheim’s gallery substantially advanced the careers of such important artists as Max Ernst (who briefly married her in the 1940s), Joseph Cornell, and Piet Mondrian. She also personally subsidized Jackson Pollock for a year, enabling him to create the innovative dripping style which created the Abstract Expressionism school.
After the war, Peggy Guggenheim, after producing a scandalous autobiography, took her collection back to Europe and settled in Venice until her death in 1979. She added little to her collection, and her one attempt to aid a rising artist ended when the artist committed suicide. For the last two decades of her life, Guggenheim and her collection slowly decayed; she left her paintings to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which now operates her home as one of the many branches of the Guggenheim Museum.
Peggy Guggenheim’s life offers several valuable lessons for the art patron. First, it’s important to be open to new ideas. Guggenheim collected great artists who were ignored in their time. Although she frequently consulted experts (including Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp), she bought the artists whose works she liked, even if they were reviled or ignored by the tastemakers of the day. A modern Peggy Guggenheim may find inexpensive treasures by looking at today’s realistic painters, who are as discounted in today’s art world as the modernists were in the 1930s.
A second lesson concerns the nature of patronage. Peggy Guggenheim gave much of her money to individuals; she subsidized the modernist novelist Djuna Barnes for nearly 50 years. But with the great exception of Pollock, most of the recipients of Guggenheim’s aid did little except spend their grants on drink and vice and complain that they weren’t given enough money.
Peggy Guggenheim’s aid to Jackson Pollock was an important grant, because Pollock used the money to transform himself from a minor artist into a great one. But she was never able to duplicate this achievement. Her failure reminds us that philanthropy is itself a very difficult art and that the successful donor more closely resembles a venture capitalist than a social worker.
Art Lover is an interesting introduction to an important philanthropist. But Anton Gill reminds us that the greatest philanthropists made the riskiest grants—and weren’t anguished when grants failed.
Contributing editor Martin Morse Wooster explores Peggy Guggenheim’s giving in the forthcoming Notable American Philanthropists.