Gore Vidal once described Peggy Guggenheim “as the last of Henry James’s transatlantic heroines, Daisy Miller with rather more balls.” Guggenheim, who died in 1979 at the age of 81, has also been called everything from “fascinatingly complex” and a “vibrant, accomplished and active woman” to “Daffy Duck dressed in slinky silk” and “glamorous but lightweight and oversexed.” As one critic put it, “Even her sunglasses made news.”
For much of the 20th century she was the enfant terrible of the art world and one of its most influential patrons. In 1949, she bought an 18th-century palazzo on the Grand Canal, in Venice, and turned it into an avant-garde salon that was said to have “more than once shocked Venice’s Renaissance soul.” Guests included Tennessee Williams, Somerset Maugham, Igor Stravinsky, Jean Cocteau, and Marlon Brando. She built one of the great collections of modern art, 326 paintings and sculptures that would become known as the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, including works by Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Constantin Brancusi, Joan Miró, Alexander Calder, Salvador Dalí, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Alberto Giacometti, Wassily Kandinsky, and Marcel Duchamp. (“Her choices affected the course of twentieth-century art history,” wrote one of her biographers, Mary V. Dearborn.) Before Guggenheim died, she donated the palazzo, along with her collection, to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, started in 1937 by her uncle, who opened the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1959. (“My uncle’s garage, that Frank Lloyd Wright thing on Fifth Avenue,” she called it.) The Peggy Guggenheim Collection opened six days a week to the public in 1980 and has become the most visited museum of modern art in Italy. Its annual attendance has increased tenfold in 35 years to about 400,000.
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