Guggenheim was born into the wealthy Guggenheim mining family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on February 2, 1861. He continued and expanded the family's business interests after studying in Zürich, Switzerland.
In the 1890's he started collecting old masters' works. In 1919, he retired and spent his time collecting even more art. In 1930, he started letting the public see his collection in his apartment in the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan.
He founded the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in 1937 with the goal of furthering appreciation of modern art. Two years later he started the Museum of Non-Objective Painting.
In the early 1940's, Guggenheim's collection of avant-garde painting had grown so large, the he felt there was a need for a permanent building to house the art. Guggenheim, and his art advisor Baroness Hilla von Rebay commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design the building housing the museum that now bears Guggenheim's name. The Museum, renamed the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1952, actually opened in the Wright designed building on October 21, 1959.