Peggy Guggenheim at Home in Venice: Collector, Patroness, Lover.
Story by Lee Daley. Photos by Lee Daley unless otherwise noted.
On the Grand Canal of Venice if you look carefully, you will see-–almost hidden, overshadowed as it is by the multi-storied palatial homes along that waterway–a low white stone palazzo that belies the treasures held within. This was the home of Peggy Guggenheim, an American heiress and art collector who single-handedly saved modern art. Peggy Guggenheim is known for her art collection and her outrageously unconventional life. Many have called her risqué, a term with which she would most likely agree. If Peggy Guggenheim had lived in our time, she would be the ideal candidate for a reality TV series—her expertise, her “shoot from the hip” dialogue and colorful personal lifestyle meant scandals stuck to her like paint on a canvas. Case in point: In the prim 50s, Peggy needed no beau to escort her into Harry’s Bar for an evening cocktail. At her beck and call was her own private gondola propelled by her personal gondolier. He would ferry her along the canal and wait dockside while she savored a cocktail and took in the evening sunset: “If anything can rival Venice in its beauty, it must be its reflection at sunset in the Grand Canal.” Peggy Guggenheim.
Peggy bought the place- Palazzo Venier dei Leoni- for a song right after World War II ended. By then, she was living alone with her art and her dogs: the palazzo was the perfect size. She had fallen in love with Venice as an adolescent when she traveled to Europe with her family. And never forgot it. Forever shaped by the loss of her doting father, Benjamin Guggenheim, who died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic when she was a girl of just 13, Peggy was known during her lifetime to seek solace–not only in her love of art–but occasionally with the artists who created the works she collected. Often called an “art addict,” she was eventually known to love art and sex in equal abundance. A true bohemian socialite, she once said: “I was a liberated woman long before there was a name for it.” Peggy Guggenheim.
Born to the wealthy New York Guggenheim family, Peggy moved to Paris at the age of 22, where she threw herself into the heart of wild bohemianism and the avant-garde artistic community. Here she met many 20th century painters and sculptors who were living in Montmartre and Montparnasse. These included three of the great pioneers of 20th-century art: the American Man Ray, the Romanian Constantin Brancusi, and the avant-garde French artist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp became a cherished friend and mentor. Of her enduring relationship with him, she later said: “I took advice from none but the best. I listened, how I listened! That’s how I finally became my own expert.” As a result, she bought works and was befriended by icons such as Dali, Picasso, and Man Ray. Many of her acquaintances at the time, including Duchamp, became lifelong friends.
By 1948, Peggy had made a name for herself as an intrepid, even visionary collector of modern art. But the male-dominated art world, especially in New York where she had supported many unknowns who later achieved fame, had always been inclined to minimize her achievements Her recently published memoir, with its colorful portrayals of her promiscuous love affairs, had even further tarnished her reputation. It wasn’t until she relocated to Venice after World War II that Peggy Guggenheim came into her own. This was the home she had longed for, a place that fed her soul, a place where beauty within and without consumed her. She put it aptly when she said: “It is always assumed that Venice is the ideal place for a honeymoon. This is a grave error. To live in Venice or even to visit it means that you fall in love with the city itself.”
After settling into her new home on the Grand Canal, both she and her collection became a magnet for visitors. Over the years Peggy evolved into something of a grande dame whose electric personality attracted the world of the literati and the arts. Truman Capote wrote a book while a guest. Igor Stravinsky, Henry Moore and Gore Vidal frequented, often floating about with their hostess in her gondola, she with her outsized sunglasses and her pampered Lhasa Apso puppies.
Art was the magnet but so was Peggy. Perhaps not intended, but in time, the name, Peggy Guggenheim, became synonymous with a wicked notoriety. Perhaps her warm weather sunbathing in the nude on the roof of her palazzo contributed. Content to let the greats and those who aspired to greatness come to her, she lived in the white house called the Venier dei Leoni Palace until her death thirty years later. Today, it is home to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, where the artworks tell a story of personal relationships, as each work of art was personally chosen. Today, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection is one of the finest museums of modern art in the world.
Having seen the collection some years ago, I recently revisited Peggy’s palazzo on the Grand Canal. Once more, I was struck by the intimacy of the collection. Unlike a display of artwork created by curators, here I could feel the individuality throughout. The sense that the collection was, and still remains, the vision of Peggy Guggenheim. Her personal touch is everywhere. One senses that she chose many pieces not because they were representative of particular artistic movements or that they were a wise investment, but because she actually liked them or perhaps more accurately, that she loved them; and was able to surround herself with art that she loved. To see the art–a Jackson Pollack or a Picasso she personally chose–from artists she knew and loved–displayed in her home, now a museum–is a rare privilege.
I stood out on the terrace where the waters of the canal ripple by and imagined Peggy as she might have once stood there near the turquoise striped poles, perhaps preparing to board her gondola, or welcoming guests to dinner, or simply to glory in the scene spread out before her. It felt like Peggy was still there.
“To go out in a gondola at night is to reconstruct in one’s imagination the true Venice, the Venice of the past alive with romance, elopements, abductions, revenged passions, intrigues, adulteries, denouncements, unaccountable deaths, gambling, lute playing and singing.” Peggy Guggenheim.
Ultimately, the museum is a celebration of Peggy Guggenheim’s ability to preserve her vision of genius and to bring that time in her life into the future. Through that vision, she is still with us. Visiting her home felt, In a way, that Peggy was still playing hostess. On her time in Venice, Peggy Guggenheim said, “Every hour of the day is a miracle of light. In summer with daybreak the rising sun produces such a tender magic on the water that it nearly breaks one’s heart.”
Peggy Guggenheim passed away at the age of 81 in 1979. Please revisit this article where more information about Peggy’s sculpture garden and her collection there will soon be available. The museum and gardens website can be visited at The Peggy Guggenheim Collection.