Discover the Guggenheims and their relationship with the art world

Here we narrate part of the story of Solomon and Peggy Guggenheim, uncle and niece who made history in the world of art

Museu Guggenheim de Nova York.(Reprodução)
New York Guggenheim Museum. (Reproduction)

85 years ago, Solomon Robert Guggenheim founded the Guggenheim Foundation, which would become one of the most famous museums in the world, inside one of New York's most iconic buildings. If you are connected to the art world, it is likely that you know the museum and that you have at least heard about its founder's niece, Peggy Guggenheim, one of the greatest art collectors in history. But, after all, who are they?

The Guggenheims are a wealthy family of Jewish origin, descendants of the patriarch Meyer Guggenheim, who emigrated from Switzerland to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Meyer began his career as a businessman in the import industry, but years later he migrated to the mining and foundry business, which ended up making him very rich. During his marriage to Barbara Myers, whom he met on board the ship bound for the United States, he had seven children, including Solomon and Benjamin, Peggy's father. 

Peggy Guggenheim em Veneza.
Peggy Guggenheim in Venice.

The Meyer children continued the family business and each built their own family. Benjamin marries Florette Seligman and they have three daughters: Benita Rosalind, Marguerite (Peggy) and Barbara Hazel. Solomon marries Irene Rothschild and with her he also has three daughters: Eleanor May, Gertrude and Barbara. At this time, as heads of family, both follow their lives normally until 1912, when the story becomes surprisingly tragic! 

On April 14, 1912, Benjamin Guggenheim was on board the Titanic with his servant, Victor Giglio, and his mistress, Léontine Aubart, who was also accompanied by his maid, Emma Sagesser. That night, Benjamin and Victor were sleeping in a cabin when they were awakened by Léontine and Emma, who felt the historic collision with the iceberg. For those who saw the film (who hasn't?) with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, it will be easy to predict the end: the girls escaped in the boats while Benjamin and Victor went down “like gentlemen”. In fact, Benjamin is portrayed in the film by actor Michael Ensign, as he was probably one of the most prominent people on board the ship. 

Cena do filme Titanic, de 1997, na qual o ator Michael Ensing faz o papel de Benjamin Guggenheim.
Scene from the 1997 film Titanic, in which actor Michael Ensing plays Benjamin Guggenheim

From this fact, Peggy's life, then a 14-year-old girl, changes forever. Firstly, because she lost her father, and secondly, because at a young age she became the heiress to a huge fortune, which would later allow her to start her tireless and lifelong act of collecting works of art that enchanted her, in addition to starting to act. as patrons as well. A few years later, in 1919, Solomon Guggenheim fully retired to dedicate himself to collecting works of modern art and, thus, niece and uncle, each in their own way, began their long and successful journeys through the universe of art that would cross paths many times in the following decades. 

In 1922, aged 24, Peggy marries the writer Laurence Vail, with whom she has two children, and continues to follow her life as a “bourgeoise” until she separates in 1930. Divorced, she moves to Paris, where her relationship with art is getting closer and closer. At the end of the 1930s, a succession of important events took place for the family's artistic trajectory: in 1937 Solomon Guggenheim founded the Foundation that bears the family's name with the aim of promoting modern art, in 1938, in Paris, Peggy inaugurated her first modern art gallery and 1939 the Museum of Non-Objective Paintings is opened by the foundation in New York. 

Solomon Guggenheim.
Solomon Guggenheim

In the early 1940s, Peggy returns to New York where she marries the surrealist painter Max Ernst and where he opens his second gallery, entitled Art of this century. Here she also consolidates her patronage activity, as it was in this gallery that many artists supported by Peggy had their first individual exhibitions. Among them are some of the biggest names in modern art such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and Hans Hofmann. 

Meanwhile, Solomon's collection was growing and filled with works by artists such as Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall. Therefore, the need for a larger building built exclusively to house this collection led to the commissioning of the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright, responsible for the design of the iconic Guggenheim building in New York, which would only open in 1959.

Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, em Veneza.
Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in Venice.

A decade earlier, however, Peggy had already moved to Venice, following her divorce from Ernst. There, after presenting a historic exhibition of surrealist, abstract, cubist paintings and sculptures, as a guest at the Greek Pavilion at the 1948 Biennale, she acquired the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, on the banks of the city's grand canal. The palace became the home of Peggy's collection, which was first opened to the public in 1949, the same year Solomon died.

In the years that followed, Peggy continued to acquire works that continued to enhance her collection. The New York Museum becomes one of the most important in the world and the Foundation expands its activities. In 1976, Peggy donates her entire collection and the palace in Venice to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which manages and directs the collection after her death in 1979. 

Guggenheim Bilbao.
Guggenheim Bilbao.

At the end of the 1990s, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao opens in Spain, in a building even more disruptive than the one in New York, designed by Frank Gehry. Also in 1997, the Guggenheim Museum in Germany was inaugurated in Berlin, the result of a partnership with Deutsche Bank, which also holds a wide and important art collection. In 2006, the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim was agreed and the project was entrusted, once again, to the ingenious hands of Frank Gehry. According to estimates by the directors of the Guggenheim Foundation, the ambitious building, which will be located on Saadiyat Island, will be inaugurated in 2026.

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