Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Mining magnate and art collector, Philadelphia native Solomon Guggenheim would endow famed art museums bearing his name.
Solomon R. Guggenheim was born on February 2, 1861, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After his schooling, he held many positions in family businesses mostly in mining, which is where he acquired his wealth. Guggenheim later married Irene Rothschild in 1895, which marked the beginning of his passion for collecting art. In 1926, he met Hilla Rebay, a young German artist, and his art collection began to grow greatly. In 1937 he created the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Later in 1939, he and Rebay opened the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, now known as the Guggenheim. They would later commission Frank Lloyd Wright to design the New York museum; however, it was not completed until 1959, ten years after Guggenheim's death in 1949.
Solomon R. Guggenheim was born February 2, 1861, in the Center City district of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Swiss immigrants Meyer Guggenheim and Barbara Meyer. The Guggenheim family was already rather wealthy at the time of his birth, with Meyer's Swiss needlework manufacturing and importing company. However, the family's fortune did not truly come until 1879 when Meyer Guggenheim bought one-third of both a lead and silver mine in Leadville, Colorado. With this the Guggenheims would become a multi-million dollar economic power and own the greatest mining empire in the world, at the time, developing resources such as gold, silver, copper, and lead.
After attending public school in Philadelphia, Guggenheim went to Switzerland to study both German and business at the Concordia Institute in Zürich. Upon completion of his education, he became partner in the family needlework business M. Guggenheim's Son's with his four brothers. He would remain in Europe to manage the Saxony branch of the business in Germany.
Upon his return to America, Guggenheim worked several different positions in the family mining business. In 1891, Guggenheim met his first challenge as an industrialist when he was sent to organize the new family mining operation, the Compañia de la Gran Fundicion Nacional Mexicana. This new position tested his abilities as a businessman, having to do all sorts of things to keep the business running, such as purchasing mine sites, importing new machinery, searching for ore, and establishing deals with the railroad companies. Guggenheim was able to achieve great success in his Mexican mining company by getting the Mexican government to grant concessions on customs duties, land acquisition, and taxes. Over the next four years his time was spent between New York and Mexico until the businesses could sufficiently run themselves and were netting over one million dollars a year in profit by 1895.
Guggenheim followed up his success with the family mining business in Mexico by becoming president of the Braden Copper Company in Chile. He later followed the success he had in both the Compañia de la Gran Fundicion Nacional Mexicana and the Braden Copper Company when he founded the Yukon Gold Company in Alaska in 1906.
As Guggenheim was reaching personal success in the business field, he also had the time to find a wife. In 1895, he married Irene Rothschild from the prominent Rothschild banking family, with whom he had three daughters: Eleanor May, Gertrude, and Barbara. It was from Irene that his love of art and collection started. Guggenheim's taste for modern art did not begin until 1926 when met the young German artist Hilla Rebay (Baroness Hildegard Rebay von Ehrenwiesen). He first started with European abstractionists, later moving to abstract or non-objective art. In 1930, Guggenheim accompanied Rebay to Vasily Kandinsky's Dessau studio where he would purchase many works eventually owning over 150 of Kandinsky's paintings. By 1939, Guggenheim would auction off most of his Old Masters paintings concentrating mainly on avant-garde art for his collection. As Guggenheim's collection grew it was housed in a private apartment at the Plaza Hotel in New York. In 1936, his exhibit started its tour, organized by Rebay, first stopping in Charleston, South Carolina at the Gibbes Art Gallery, the following year it would travel to Philadelphia where it would be housed at the Art Alliance then Baltimore. In 1937, while the Guggenheim exhibit was in Philadelphia he created the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, according to the original charter, for the "promotion and encouragement of art and education in art and the enlightenment of the public," with Hilla Rebay as curator.
On May 31, 1939, Guggenheim and Rebay opened the Museum of Non-Objective Painting at 24 East Fifty-fourth Street in New York City, housing his collection of American and European abstract art. Guggenheim also continued to send collections on tour trying to promote a broader acceptance for the new kind of art. Not only did the Guggenheim Foundation promote abstract art but it also provided scholarships and financial aid to needy artists during the time of the Great Depression as well as assisting many refugee European artists during the 1940's.
In 1943, Guggenheim and Rebay began planning a permanent structure to house the collection. They hired famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design the building for the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. However, Guggenheim died on Long Island, New York in 1949. Three years following his death the museum was renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. After many years, making over 700 sketches for a possible building, the famous design was agreed upon and construction began in 1956. It was completed and opened to the public on October 21, 1959, ten years after Guggenheim's death.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation would go on to be a major influence in the world of art and still is throughout today. In 1997, The Guggenheim Museum opened in Bilbao, Spain along with the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin, Germany funded entirely by the Deutsche Bank Corporation. In 2000, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation opened a museum in Venice with the collection of Peggy Guggenheim, Solomon's niece. The following year the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the State Hermitage jointly opened the Guggenheim State Hermitage Museum at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas.
Rebay, Hilla. Art of Tomorrow: Hilla Rebay and Solomon R. Guggenheim. New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2005.
Photo Credit: Bain News Service. "S.R. Guggenheim & daughter." between 1915 and 1920. Photograph. Licensed under Public Domain. Cropped to 4x3. Source: Online Resource. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, George Grantham Bain Collection.