“Living in Venice, or simply visiting it, means falling in love with it and leaving no room in your heart for anything else.” – Peggy Guggenheim
Peggy Guggenheim was a voracious lover of art, men and Venice. She lived in the city for over 30 years until her death, in 1979, at the age of 81. Her art collection and Venice home, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, are the basis of The Peggy Guggenheim Collection. It’s noted as the most important collection, in Italy, of European and American art from the first half of the 20th century.
While her appreciation for the art of her time is well-known, Peggy Guggenheim initially studied and enjoyed the classics, particularly Venetian Renaissance paintings. From her twenties onward, surrounded by a growing circle of avant-garde and bohemian writers and artists, she developed an astute knowledge of and keen eye for modern art.
“I took advice from none but the best. I listened, how I listened! That’s how I finally became my own expert.”
The majority of Peggy Guggenheim’s collection was put together over a period of ten years. From 1938 to 1940 in Europe, 1941 to 1946 in the United States and during her first two years back in Europe. She continued to collect art throughout her life. However, according to an article in the New Criterion, her later additions were less significant than her earlier ones.
Peggy Guggenheim also provided financial support to and extensively promoted a number of artists. It can be said that she launched the tragically all-too-short career of Jackson Pollock. When she first met him, he was struggling financially as an artist, holding down a day job as a carpenter for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. The financial support she provided to Pollack allowed him the freedom to focus on his art.
Shortly after Peggy Guggenheim returned to Europe in 1946, she was invited to show her collection at the 24th La Biennale in Venice which took place in 1948. Presented were 136 pieces, covering the work of 73 artists, including Jackson Pollack, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Wassily Kandinsky. This was the first time such an avant-garde body of work was permitted at the Biennale and a turning point for the acceptance of modern art in Italy.
Deciding to remain in Venice (choosing this beautiful city over all others), in 1949 Peggy Guggenheim purchased the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni from the heirs of Viscountess Castlerosse. The Viscountess, who died of an overdose at 42, was a London socialite who attracted the attention of Winston Churchill among others. Churchill was so taken with her that he painted her portrait in 1930. Born Doris Delevingne (and incidentally, Clara Delevingne’s great-aunt), she later modified her last name to de Lavigne, She, like Peggy, was often the subject of gossip about her “scandalous” affairs. Prior to the Viscountess’s ownership, the palazzo had been the home of Marchessa Luisa Casati. The Marchessa and Peggy Guggenheim had some commonalities. Both became wealthy heiresses at a young age. Both were patrons of the arts, although perhaps the Marchessa was a tad more flamboyant. The Marchessa launched many artists’ careers through her patronage. She liked “the newest and most radical artistic terrains of the twentieth century.” (Source: marchesacasati.com).
The Palazzo Venier dei Leoni seems a fitting abode for these women who stood out from others during their lives. As the lone one-story palazzo, it stands out from the other structures on the Grand Canal.
Known as the “Maifinio” (never finished) in the Venetian dialect, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, dates from the mid-1700s. The architect, Lorzenzo Boschetti, intended it to be a grand three-story building. Only a small portion of the first floor was completed. The reason why the building was never finished remains a mystery. Some speculate there was battle between two prominent Venetian families, the Veniers and the Corners. The Veniers commissioned the home. The Corners owned the palazzo across the canal and did not want their grand home to be upstaged. So, they blocked further construction of the palazzo, claiming it would obstruct their view. Or, is the reason less intriguing? Others suggest that either money became tight or engineering issues got in the way. In any case, I found the home to be rather grand “as is.”
As for the “dei Leoni” reference in the palazzo’s name, there are 18 stone lions’ head sculptures at the base of the palazzo facing the canal. Legend has it that living lions were once kept in the garden.
The Marchessa Luisa Casati lived up to the legend. She kept pet cheetahs in the garden.
In 1951, after touring her collection around Europe for several years, Peggy Guggenheim installed it at the Palazzo dei Leoni.
She continued to support the Venice Biennale, making it a point to purchase something from every show. Artists, art critics, gallery owners and key collectors flocked to Venice during the each opening week (the tradition continues today) of the Biennale. Safe from the lions and cheetahs of past days, many were invited to the large cocktail parties Peggy held in her spacious garden to celebrate the start of the latest exhibition.
Her ever-growing art collection and artists-in-residence program took over the palazzo. At one point, she had plans drawn up to add a two-story modern gallery on the roof. The design was much in the style of Le Corbusier. The plans were abandoned, partially as she thought the proposed addition was ugly, partially because the addition would have cost sixty thousand dollars, only a bit less than the amount she paid for the palazzo. Instead, she converted the basement servants’ quarters into galleries and artists studios. Peggy Guggenheim also made space for the artists and new work by giving away large portions of her collection.
Her generous support of the arts also included holding salons in her home for art lovers and critics. The palazzo was also opened to the public three afternoons a week. The admission was free.
Her many and frequent house guests, caught off guard, were often still in their Pjs when the museum-goers came to the palazzo. During opening hours, Peggy would either escape to her roof-top terrace and sunbathe or glide off in her Gondola. I think it would be wonderful to lounge on that terrace.
Initially, her entire home was accessible. Eventually, she closed off her bedroom to the public, only allowing friends and those who specifically requested a viewing to see it. Her bedroom, shown in the photo below, contained a spectacular silver bed-head made by Alexander Calder specifically for Peggy. The room was painted turquoise. Her extensive collection of earrings, accumulated from around the world, hung on her walls. The curtains were made from saris and the mirrors were elaborate Venetian designs. The room would fit in well with today’s boho décor themes.
In her dining room, Peggy combined Cubist artwork with a 15th century Venetian dining table and chairs. Seen behind Peggy is “Vita segreta” (Secret Life), a 1958 oil by the Venetian painter, Giuseppe Santamosa. Peggy met Santamosa shortly after arriving in Venice in 1946. They became close friends. It was through him that she was invited to show at the 1948 Biennale. You also see Brancusi’s sculpture “Maiastra” (Maestro). Peggy purchased it when she couldn’t get Brancusi to agree on a fair price for the “Bird in Space” sculpture that she coveted. “Bird in Space” was added to her collection soon afterward, weeks before German troops invaded Paris in June 1940. Both sculptures are in the Collection today, as is the dining room furniture.
In the next photo, she is seen adjusting Max Ernst’s “The Anti-pope.” Ernst painted it in New York shortly after fleeing Europe in the summer of 1941 (more about this Surrealist painting in my next post). Peggy is shown standing beside a pre-Columbian sculpture in the photo below. She began buying pre-Columbian pieces in 1958. It was her first visit back to New York in twelve years. She was “thunderstruck” to find how much the American art world had changed during over the years. Prices had sky-rocketed and people considered modern art a business investment.
“Only a few people really care for paintings. The rest buy them from snobbishness or to avoid taxation, presenting pictures to museums and being allowed to keep them until their death, a way of having your cake and eating it.”
By the 1960’s, Peggy had pretty well stopped collecting modern art.
“In fact, I do not like art today, I think it has gone to hell as a result of the financial attitude. People blame me for what is painted today because I had encouraged and helped this new movement to be born. I am not responsible. Eighteen years ago there was a pioneering spirit in America. A new art had to be born – Abstract Expressionism. I fostered it. I do not regret it. It produced Pollock, or rather Pollock produced it. This alone justifies my efforts. As to the others, I don’t know what got into them. Some people say that I got stuck. Maybe it’s true.”
With her home base and museum in place, she spent some time travelling, visiting Sri Lanka, India, Greece, Syria and other many other countries.
In her final years, Peggy Guggenheim withdrew somewhat from the world. Despite being ill, she would take a gondola ride through her beloved city each evening. After her death, an honorary dispensation was granted by the City of Venice allowing her ashes to be buried in her Venice garden near the graves of her pet dogs. The spot is marked with a simple plaque.
Only weeks before she died, she wrote to a friend in New York about her museum,
“It is one of the most popular attractions in Venice, so at least I have achieved my great ambition.” (Source: Obituary in The New York Times, December 24, 1979).
She left her collection of over 260 artworks to The Solomon G. Guggenheim Foundation, an organization started by her uncle. There was one stipulation, the collection had to remain at the palazzo (or somewhere nearby should Venice sink) and intact. Her wishes have, for the most part, been respected. Pieces from the collection are however, loaned out to other museums for extended periods of time (years).
The Foundation has continued to add to the collection. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection remains one of the most popular attractions in Venice. Peggy Guggenheim left a wonderful legacy for the city which she loved above all others.