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Mistress of Modernism: The Life of Peggy Guggenheim Hardcover – September 15, 2004

3.8 out of 5 stars 18 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Dearborn celebrates Guggenheim, the iconoclastic doyenne of abstract expressionism, in this appreciative, thorough biography. Born in 1898 to a "poor" branch of the family, Guggenheim moved to Europe in 1920, where she befriended such modernist notables as Djuna Barnes and Marcel Duchamp. After two failed marriages (to alcoholic, volatile writers), Guggenheim began to collect surrealist and other modern art seriously, opening the Guggenheim Jeune in London in 1938. During WWII, she preserved numerous artworks—and artists—by getting them to the U.S.; she also began a long, turbulent relationship with Max Ernst. In wartime New York, Guggenheim opened Art of This Century; the explosively popular gallery brought fame to Jackson Pollock, Joseph Cornell and others. Dearborn, who has authored biographies of Norman Mailer and Henry Miller, underscores Guggenheim's professional achievements, but salacious details and physical descriptions—of her infamous nose, her delicate ankles—sometimes win out over character analysis and art history. Although Dearborn seems to rely a good deal on Guggenheim's sensational 1946 autobiography, Out of This Century, which publicized her artists and myriad lovers alike, her research and interviews with family and friends add rich, gossipy detail about the heiress's life. With its fluid prose and provocative subject, this book will appeal to art lovers interested in more than the paint. B&w photos not seen by PW.
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From Booklist

How few of America's major museums would exist without the passion and zeal of art collectors and the dealers who advised them, and yet, how rarely their fascinating stories are told. Bohemian art impresario and collector Peggy Guggenheim has often been trivialized. Anton Gill's Art Lover (2002) offers a more balanced view, and now Dearborn presents a freshly judicious, multidimensional, and sympathetic portrait laced with new and revelatory documentation. With drive and clarity, Dearborn charts Guggenheim's peripatetic life in France and England during the heady 1920s and 1930s; her traumatic relationships with unstable, even violent men; and the crystallization of her mission to support avant-garde art. After helping artists escape the Nazis at great personal risk, Guggenheim opened her innovative New York gallery, where she was the first to exhibit such seminal modern artists as de Chirico, Giacometti, Pollock, and Rothko. Dearborn thoroughly analyzes Guggenheim's flaws--her low self-esteem, abysmal failure as a mother, and lack of intellectual rigor (although Dearborn herself is shaky on aesthetics)--yet vehemently defends Guggenheim against the vociferous, clearly misogynistic criticism of her free-spirited ways. Ultimately, Guggenheim comes into focus as a beleaguered champion not only for avant-garde artists but also for sexual equality and freedom of expression in all aspects of life. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; F First Edition edition (September 15, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618128069
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618128068
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #464,757 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By krebsman VINE VOICE on November 26, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I had eagerly awaited this book because I had been disappointed in Guggenheim's own CONFESSIONS OF AN ART ADDICT. I wanted a book that didn't skip over some obvious issues, like the reasons for the multiple marriages and a daughter's suicide. I was not disappointed in Mary V. Dearborn's MISTRESS OF MODERNISM. Dearborn delivers a warts-and-all biography that is nonetheless sympathetic, and extremely readable. I read this book quickly even though I put it down often to think about the implications of what I had just read.

Can one have too much money? As I read this book I wondered if Peggy might have been happier if she had had to work for a living. As Dearborn points out, Peggy was a "poor" Guggenheim whose fortune was only a fraction of her Uncle Sol's. The bohemian crowd that Peggy wanted to be a part of assumed that Peggy's fortune was far larger than it actually was. As a result, she had the reputation of being a cheapskate even though she supported a handful of people she was not even related to until they died. (This list would include Djuna Barnes, ex-husbands and ex-husbands' previous wives and widows, etc.) She also subsidized a lot of other people at various times on a temporary basis. The people in this milieu seem to have had extremely poor parenting skills. Peggy and her sisters spent their childhood virtually segregated from adults. Could that be why she and her surviving sister were such poor mothers? Peggy's son grew up to be an ambitionless playboy and her daughter Pegeen committed suicide. Peggy's sister murdered her own two small sons by pitching them off a balcony. She got away with it. Peggy, her sister and her daughter were promiscuous and seemingly had voracious sexual appetites.
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Format: Hardcover
This is an excellent book for anyone with even a passing interest in modern art and 20th century cultural history. The title is most appropriate because Peggy Guggenheim seems to have been bound up with every aspect of modernism practically by the time anyone knew to call it that. When she was a child, her father went down on the Titanic - kind of a modernist cultural event in its own way, along with being a great tragedy - and her first real job was in a bookstore in Manhattan that sold the work of modernist writers like Joyce and Lawrence. In Paris in the 20s she knew all the usual suspects - Hemingway, Joyce himself, who was a good friend, Picasso - and in the 30s she gravitated toward the British surrealist group that gathered around Herbert Read. I was surprised to learn that one of her great friends in these years was none other than Emma Goldman, the writing of whose autobiography Peggy bankrolled.

The author does a wonderful job of showing you how a pampered rich girl came to live such a life. In short, she didn't want to live the same stifling confined life that other women from her upper class background were condemned to in those days. She liked to live among artists because they weren't like that.

So what about the art? Guggenheim's career as an art patron, collector, and dealer is such a good yarn that it's tempting not to say too much about it here. She literally brought modern art to America during the WW II years - brought her collection, brought many of the artists themselves, and hooked them up with the younger generation of Americans who would follow in their footsteps - Jackson Pollock (her greatest discovery), Baziotes, Clyfford Still, Rothko, Motherwell, etc etc.
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Format: Hardcover
I didn't realize when I picked this up that I'd be reading about Nazi interrogations, the anarchist Emma Goldman, rescuing Jewish artists from Vichy France, and cultural politics during the Cold War. Quite a life.

There are two really illuminating things about this book: First, it provides a great travelogue of the avant-garde cultural scene in the 1920s and 1930s, which Peggy seemed to be acquainted with every crack and corner of; second, it gives a first-hand view of how that scene was distilled into the post-war art world of New York. Peggy had a crucial role in creating the love-it-or-hate-it art business we know today - in fact, by the mid-50s it had got a bit too rich even for her!

I have to say I didn't know much about Peggy Guggenheim before I read this book. I learned a lot about her and about the constellation of artists she patronized, encouraged, and helped raise to prominence. There's plenty of good gossip here, about Max Ernst (her second husband), Samuel Beckett (who she had a torrid affair with), Yves Tanguey, etc., but also some splendid cultural history. The appendix is almost worth the price of admission: Even by the standards of the time, I think, Peggy was paying pocket money for some of the 20th century's greatest works of art! Dearborn reprints some of the records from Peggy's gallery, and it's enough to make you drool!

It's possible to argue that Peggy was just in the right place at the right time, but Dearborn makes a good argument that she was a lot more than that. Very interesting and liberated woman who was misunderstood a lot in her time and even after her death, but who changed art history.
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