Icons / February 2017

Certified Original: Peggy Guggenheim

Collector, bohemian, socialite. The list of Peggy Guggenheim’s accomplishments goes on and on, as does her enduring legacy to the world of fine art.

Peggy Guggenheim is said to have had a thousand lovers, but she only truly had one: art. Through a combination of privilege, ego, opportunism and drive, she didn’t buy art because she knew it’s intrinsic or predicted value, because when she built much of her collection there was simply no market to speak of. Instead, she bought because the art spoke to her, because she saw something in it that captured her intellect and imagination, that she knew was inherently worthy. In this way, perhaps no other mind of the 20th century has had such a singular impact on the definition of what constitutes modern art. She represented a new kind of serious collector - one who did not have roots in aristocracy or royalty; one who instead was relentlessly forward-thinking.

She was born into money of course. The daughter of Benjamin Guggenheim (metals) and Florette Seligman (banking), her childhood was one of privilege, though it was far from happy. She felt she could never fit in - something not helped by her neglectful mother, who left her in the care of strict and vindictive nannies. Her father died in the sinking of the Titanic, and thus she inherited the not-inconsiderable sum of $450,000.00 - about $5 million today. In her early twenties, desperate to escape her upper-class social circle, she took a job at an avant-garde bookstore. She didn’t need the money, but it put her in the path of more creative thinkers, notably Alfred Steiglitz, future husband of Georgia O’Keeffe. It was at his gallery, being exhibited in America for the first time, that she encountered the works of Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso. She was hooked straight away.

Peggy relocated to Paris in the early 1920’s; it would become her home base of sorts for the next twenty two odd years. Collection was her primary motivator, both of art and of lovers. Independent, confident and curious, she was a great seducer and experimenter, and dabbled with almost every artist that crossed her path, and many more. Once asked how many husbands she’d had, she famously replied “Do you mean mine, or other people's?" She had two, disastrous marriages, first to failed author Lawrence Vail, with whom she had two children and who would rub jam in her hair when they fought, and then to painter and sculptor Max Ernst. Ernst was less deliberately brutal, though the marriage was still regarded as something of a catastrophe in retrospect. Thankfully both marriages ended relatively swiftly.

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Ben St George

Ben St George is The Rake's Head of Buying