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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca Ramsay, MA

A Brief History of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice

What is the Peggy Guggenheim Collection?

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection is an intimate 18th-century palace on the grand canal in Venice that’s now a museum filled with an impressive collection of avant-garde art.

Peggy Guggenheim Collection

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Peggy Guggenheim Collection History

Peggy Guggenheim was one of the 20-century art world’s most influential figures. An American heiress to a vast family fortune (whose father was drowned on the Titanic when she was just thirteen), Peggy made it her life’s work to spend her inheritance on the most exciting avant-garde art of her time, resulting in one of the best collections of modern art in Europe. Her trailblazing collection includes work by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon, Alexander Calder and Kazimir Malevich, to name just a few. The museum is also home to the Minimalist and Abstract Expressionist Schulhof Collection, as well as to a thought-provoking array of modern sculpture. Look out for Marino Marini’s exuberant Angel of the City on the waterfront terrace – but be warned, it is a little cheeky!

Peggy was introduced to modern art by her first husband, the Dadaist Laurence Vail. Living in Paris, they socialised with Man Ray, Constantin Brâncuși and Marcel Duchamp. Although her marriage to the penniless artist was over after only eight years, her relationship with the avant-garde would last a lifetime. A short second marriage to the Surrealist Max Ernst followed twelve years later in 1942. It was a tumultuous relationship but she remained his loyal patron, purchasing from him the brilliant and disturbing works that you’ll see on show today.

Although it may be hard to believe on visiting this world-renowned collection, these artworks weren’t always considered valuable. At the onset of the Second World War, the Louvre actually refused to house Peggy’s collection for safekeeping, forcing her to ship it to the United States under the label of ‘household goods’. Living in New York during the war, Peggy’s continued patronage of promising young artists saw her discover and financially support a then broke and unknown Jackson Pollock. She would later name this as her greatest accomplishment. Don’t miss his outstanding Alchemy, an enormous work and one of his earliest poured paintings.

In 1948, Peggy was invited to exhibit her collection at the Venice Biennale (the city’s famed biennial art exhibition). A year later, she purchased this building, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. The gleaming white palace seems unusually restrained amidst the grandeur of the Grand Canal. Commissioned in 1749 by the aristocratic Venier family, the building was intended to be five-storeys high, but the work was never completed after the Napoleonic invasion. This left it with a surprisingly Modernist aesthetic, and one that suits Peggy’s collection perfectly. The Palazzo Venier dei Leoni was both home and personal gallery to her for 30 years.

Peggy was a well-known character in Venice. When she wasn’t sunbathing naked on the rooftop of her palazzo, she might be spotted drifting down the Grand Canal in her own personal gondola, surrounded by her Lhasa Apso dogs, a sight to behold in her signature winged sunglasses.

On her death in 1979, the palace was passed to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and converted into a museum. Peggy’s ashes are buried in a corner of the museum garden, along with 14 of her beloved dogs.

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