This Day in Jewish History

1979: Peggy Guggenheim, Art Visionary and Sexual Adventurer, Dies

An early adopter of modern art, Peggy Guggenheim was so inspired by the Pompeii sex frescoes that she wanted to try it all.

Picture of Peggy Guggenheim (bottom right) shown on backdrop of her grave, next to a plaque remembering her Lhasa Apsos.
Wikimedia and Haaretz

On December 23, 1979, Peggy Guggenheim, scion of two enormously wealthy Jewish New York families, and one of the 20th century’s most influential art patrons and collectors, died, at age 81. Bizarrely, but in part because she chose to publicize that part of her life, Guggenheim is remembered no less today for her voracious sexual appetite than for her prescient support of contemporary art.  

Marguerite Guggenheim was born on August 26, 1898, in New York. Her father was Benjamin Guggenheim, whose father, Meyer Guggenheim, had built an empire around the mining and smelting of silver, copper and lead. Her mother was the former Florette Seligman, whose father, James, was co-founder of the investment bank J. & W. Seligman.

Although the Guggenheims had amassed more of it, the Seligmans’ wealth was older, and they tended to look down on their in-laws as parvenus. What’s more, Benjamin Guggenheim left the family business in 1901, and by the time he went down on the Titanic, in 1912, the estate that he left his family was smaller than one might imagine. (In a new biography, “Peggy Guggenheim: The Shock of the Modern,” Francine Prose reports that Peggy inherited $450,000 when she turned 21, the rough equivalent of $5 million today.)

She attended the prestigious Jacobi School, but did not follow it by attending college. Her lack of higher education led to lifelong feelings of inferiority, as did her “potato”-like nose, which wasn’t helped by a botched rhinoplasty in her early 20s.

A turning point came when Peggy began working at an avant-garde bookstore in New York, in 1919, which brought her in touch with members of the city’s bohemian crowd. This in turn encouraged her, the following year, to travel to Paris, like so many of her peers in the decade following World War I.

Inspired in Pompeii

It was in Paris that she made friends with such Dadaists as Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, the latter of whom spent much time teaching her about art. She also met and married her first husband, an experimental writer named Laurence Vail, who was the father of her two children.

In her 1946 memoir, “Out of This Century,” Guggenheim described how her sexual curiosity had been stoked by seeing frescoes, at age 23, from Pompeii, depicting “people making love in various positions, and of course I was very curious and wanted to try them all out myself.”

She found many men, and some women, who would help her in this mission – Prose says that Guggenheim counted 400 lovers – as well as teach her about art.

In 1938, she opened her first gallery, Guggenheim Jeune, in London, and exhibited works by Jean Cocteau, Wassily Kandinsky, Henry Moore, Pablo Picasso and other art superstars of the future.

Her plans to follow up the gallery with a museum were overtaken by World War II. But during the two years before Guggenheim returned to New York, fleeing France in the summer of 1941, she bought up as much new art as she could, averaging one piece a day. She then succeeded in smuggling her collection out of the continent.

Introducing American art to Europe

In 1942, Peggy opened Art of the Century (the night it opened, she wore unmatched earrings, one made for her by Alexander Calder, the other by Yves Tanguy), a gallery-museum where she showed not only the avant-garde of Europe, but also such American then-unknowns as Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and, perhaps the painter who would become her greatest discovery, Jackson Pollock.

When she returned to Europe, in this case to Venice, following the war, she brought her American art with her. She bought an 18th-century palazzo on the Grand Canal, and made it both her home and a museum, which she opened to the public three days a week. Today, it remains the most popular modern-art museum in Italy.

In 1976, Guggenheim arranged to leave her collection and its home to the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, which operates the eponymous museums in New York and Bilbao, among other places.

When she died, on this date in 1979, Peggy’s ashes were buried in the garden of her palace, next to the remains of 14 of her beloved Lhasa Apso dogs.

Lhasa Apsos were created in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, to alert the monks to intruders. Why a different dog couldn't do that, is not clear. Lhasa is the Tibet capital city and apso means "bearded". This photo shows a particularly well-groomed long-haired silky specimen of Lhasa Apso, some of which have a poodly or terrier aspect to their look.
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