Pegeen Vail Guggenheim: a forgotten artist

Chances are you’re familiar with the Guggenheim name. Members of the extensive family are significant across a number of fields, and the art world is no exception. In 1937, businessman, philanthropist and art collector Solomon R. Guggenheim co-founded, with his long-time art advisor and artist Hilla von Rebay, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, which established itself as a leading institution for the collection, preservation, and research of modern and contemporary art. The foundation operates a number of museums around the world, the first of which, formerly named the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, opened in 1939 on 1071 Fifth Avenue on the corner of East 89th Street in the Upper East Side neighbourhood of Manhattan, NYC. Since the death of its principal founder in 1952, the museum has been known as The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, or “The Guggenheim”, and is the permanent home of a continuously expanding collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, early modern and contemporary art, and features a number of additional special exhibitions throughout the year. Its sister museums can be found dotted across the globe, including in Bilbao, Abu Dhabi and Berlin.

Solomon R. Guggenheim’s niece Peggy later made a name for herself (albeit the same name) as a pioneering art collector and contributor to the movement of Modern, Surrealist and abstract art, and a vital early supporter of now well established names, one of the most famous amongst them being Jackson Pollock. I could go on an on about Peggy Guggenheim (she led a very interesting life, which I’d highly recommend reading about, if ever you’re in need of a good holiday and/or long train journey book), but this post is instead dedicated to her daughter, Pegeen.

Solomon R. Guggenheim (r) with architect Frank Lloyd Wright (l) observing an architectural model of what would be the iconic Guggenheim Museum in New York. / Peggy Guggenheim and Jackson Pollock, in front of the mural she had him design for her apartment entrance hall.

Pegeen Vail Guggenheim was born in Switzerland on August 18, 1925, the daughter of a socialite-cum-art collector mother and a writer father, Laurence Vail. Her childhood was spent in France and England before she moved to the States with her mother at the age of sixteen. There she began studying at Finch College in Manhattan, a prestigious baccalaureate college for girls, which later developed into a liberal arts school, noted for its international focus and diversity among learning levels, and which established the Finch College Museum of Art (1959) and published more than 100 books on art and art history.

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Pegeen was considered a fragile beauty, with long blonde hair and a delicate disposition, both physically and emotionally. She was known to have suffered from depression from her early adolescence, thought by many to be a consequence of her tumultuous upbringing. Much of her childhood was spent apart from her mother Peggy, and the little time spent with her was not particularly substantial. Peggy was notorious for her determinedly sexually liberated approach to her love life, and her stormy and unstable relationships with men (one of whom, Max Ernst, Pegeen herself had an awkward, repressed sexual connection with). The psychoanalysts among us might argue that, ironically, this could have been the result of Peggy growing up without a stable father figure, after her father perished on the Titanic in 1912 when she was just 13, an event which Pegee later said she’d never gotten over. In the absence of an outwardly-caring mother, Pegeen developed an inseparable mother-daughter bond with her nanny, only to have it cruelly torn away from her when Peggy fired the nanny in a move motivated by jealous maternal rivalry.

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In the Park, 1953

It’s a commonly held opinion that Pegeen’s devotion and determination as an artist was part of a wider effort to gain her mother’s attention and approval. Pegeen very much admired Peggy, and Peggy showed great admiration for, and dedication to, her artists, often referring to them as her ‘children’, and her collection of artworks as her ‘babies’. Pegeen was a serious artist in that she took her art seriously, and indeed her mother championed her work, including it in prominent exhibitions at her gallery.

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On the Grand Canal, 1950s

Pegeen’s own personal life was little less tumultuous than her mother’s. In 1943 she met the French painter Jean Helion, who was responsible for contributing to the introduction of abstract art in the US. They married in 1946 and had three sons, but separated by 1956. The following year Pegeen met and fell in love with the English painter and new-realist Ralph Rumney. Between bouts of depression Pegeen was at her happiest during this time, and the couple had a son together and moved to Paris to make a life together.

My Wedding, 1946 / Family Portrait, late 1950s

Despite Peggy’s shortcomings as a responsible and devoted mother, and her inability to mediate a peaceful relationship with her daughter, she did in fact love Pegeen a great deal. Pegeen died suddenly in Paris on March 1, 1967, aged 41, after overdosing on pills in her apartment. Peggy was informed of her daughter’s death by telegram whilst she was travelling in Mexico, and in her memoir wrote: “I was informed of the terrible news of the death of my daughter, my darling Pegeen that was for me a mother, a friend and a sister…”, describing her daughter as the love of my life.

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Intimate Conversation, 1960s

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Palazzo Venier – Grand Canal, 1960s

The list of individuals and events that may have influenced and coloured Pegeen’s artwork is an extensive one – including her disorderly upbringing, tense relationship with her mother, encounters with her parents’ endless artist friends, relationships with two artist husbands, and general ongoing exposure to a wide range of art and aesthetics. The bright and convival scenes depicted in her paintings hark to a longing for a stable and happy life. Her work has been quietly celebrated by those closest to her yet her international profile and recognition as a distinguished artist has been all but forgotten. Pegeen’s mother remains perhaps her most prominent supporter, with a collection of Pegeen’s work permanently on display in the Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice, ensuring that although Pegeen may have been overlooked by the masses, she was no means forgotten by a few.

The Sunshade, 1960s

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