Peggy Guggenheim Biography

Peggy Guggenheim, a prominent American art collector and socialite, made a name for herself in the world of art curation and collection. Born into the renowned Guggenheim family of New York, Peggy’s passion for art led her to become a notable collector of Abstract, Surrealist, and Cubist artworks. She went on to establish her own art galleries in Paris, London, and New York, eventually showcasing her impressive collection to the public. Today, the ‘Peggy Guggenheim Collection’ stands as a modern art museum situated on the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy, attracting countless visitors from around the world. In a remarkable act of philanthropy, Peggy donated her entire collection to the ‘Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation,’ founded by her uncle, before retiring and settling in Venice until her passing in 1979.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Marguerite Guggenheim
  • Died At Age: 81
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Laurence Vail (m. 1922 – 1930), Max Ernst (m. 1941 – 1946)
    • Father: Benjamin Guggenheim
    • Mother: Floretta Seligman
    • Children: Michael Cedric Sindbad Vail, Pegeen Vail Guggenheim
  • Born Country: United States
  • Socialites
  • American Women
  • Died on: December 23, 1979
  • Place of death: Camposampiero, Italy
  • Ancestry: American Italian, Swiss American
  • U.S. State: New Yorkers
  • Founder/Co-Founder: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Peggy Guggenheim Collection

Childhood & Early Life

Marguerite “Peggy” Guggenheim was born on August 26, 1898, in New York City. She was of Ashkenazi Jewish descent. Her mother, Florette Seligman, belonged to the wealthy Seligman family, while her father, Benjamin Guggenheim, belonged to the popular Guggenheim family. However, Peggy inherited far less than her cousins, resulting in her and her family living a middle-class life.

Early Career

Peggy started working as a clerk in an original book store called the “Sunwise Turn.” It was during this time that she fell in love with the “bohemian” culture and community. In 1930, she moved to Paris, France, where she became close friends with many original writers, photographers, and artists. She also became close friends with artist and journalist Djuna Barnes. Peggy showcased a lot of her friends’ works through her art museum.


In 1938, Guggenheim opened her first art gallery in London to exhibit modern art. She started collecting art that appealed to her aesthetic sense. Her first art show featured the drawings of French poet Jean Cocteau. She named her first gallery “Guggenheim Jeune” after the French gallery “Bernheim-Jeune.” After World War II, she began purchasing Abstract and Surrealist art, which had become popular. With the help of her friends and then-husband Laurence Vail, she introduced many artists and artworks to her gallery.

Over time, she held several exhibitions at her art gallery, featuring artists such as Yves Tanguy, Wolfgang Paalen, Henry Moore, Raymond Duchamp-Villon, and Wassily Kandinsky. She also organized sculpture exhibitions, featuring artists such as Jean Arp, Henri Laurens, Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and John Ferren. She started earning around £600 within the first year of the gallery’s launch and decided to invest her money in building her business.

In 1939, she bid farewell to her art gallery and set a vision to open the “Museum of Modern Art” with English art historian and critic Herbert Read. However, World War II broke out, and she lost most of her paintings, loans, and artworks. This led her to re-collect tons of Abstract paintings, including works by Picasso, Ernst, Magritte, Ferren, Man Ray, Klee, and Wolfgang Paalen. In 1940, she rented a place in “Place Vendôme” to serve as her visionary museum, but she had to abandon it due to the arrival of the Germans in Paris.

Following this, she moved to New York with her art collection and opened a new gallery called “The Art of This Century Gallery.” The galleries were dedicated to Cubist, Surrealist, Kinetic, and Commercial Art. She invited big artists to exhibit their work in her gallery, and many popular shows were held there. During this time, she developed an interest in the works of artists such as Jackson Pollock, William Congdon, Wolfgang Paalen, and Ada Verdun Howell. She closed “The Art of This Century Gallery” in 1947 and moved to Venice to spend the rest of her life there.

In Venice, she established her work at the “Palazzo Venier dei Leoni” and promoted many new artists throughout her career. In the 1960s, she focused more on selling and exhibiting her own work. By the end of the 1960s, she had loaned her collection to the “Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum” in New York City, which belonged to her uncle. In 1976, she transferred her entire collection to the “Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Foundation” and decided to retire.

Awards & Achievements

The “Peggy Guggenheim Collection” is one of the most popular museums of artwork in Italy. It is known for its massive collection of European and American artworks, focusing on Surrealist, Cubist, and Abstract works of the early 20th century. Peggy was also portrayed by Amy Madigan in the film “Pollock” in 2000, and a play titled “Woman Before a Glass,” based on her life, opened in New York in 2005. A documentary named “Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict” was released in 2015.

Family, Personal Life & Legacy

Peggy had a colorful personal life and had affairs with many artists and writers. She was married twice in her lifetime. Her first marriage was to Laurence Vail, with whom she had two children. They divorced due to Laurence’s affair with writer Kay Boyle. Her second marriage was to painter Max Ernst. Peggy spent the final years of her life in Italy and died of a stroke on December 23, 1979, at the age of 81. Her remains are buried in the “Palazzo Venier dei Leoni” alongside the graves of her dogs.

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