The Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian is the great cultural centre of Portugal – and it is a wonder that it’s not better known internationally. Located a few minutes’ walk north of Parque Eduardo VII, the foundation is set in its own grounds, and features a museum whose collections cover everything from Ancient Egyptian scarabs to Art Nouveau jewellery, Islamic textiles to French Impressionist paintings, and virtually every phase of Eastern and Western art from their beginnings to the modern era. In a separate building, across the park, the Centro de Arte Moderna concentrates largely on Portuguese works, touching on most styles of twentieth-century art.
Astonishingly, all the main museum exhibits were acquired by just one man, the Armenian oil magnate Calouste Gulbenkian. Today, in the capital alone, the Gulbenkian Foundation runs an orchestra, three concert halls and two galleries. It also finances work in all spheres of Portuguese cultural life and makes charitable grants to a vast range of projects.Read More
The objects in the Museu Gulbenkian aren’t immense in number, but each themed collection contains pieces of such individual interest and beauty that you need frequent unwinding sessions – well provided for by the basement café-bar and tranquil gardens. The museum takes in virtually every great phase of Eastern and Western art. The small Egyptian room displays art from the Old Kingdom (c.2700 BC) up to the Roman period. Fine Roman statues, silver and glass, and gold jewellery from ancient Greece follow. The Islamic arts are magnificently represented by a variety of ornamental texts, opulently woven carpets, glassware and Turkish tiles. There is also porcelain from China, and beautiful Japanese prints and lacquer-work.
European art includes work from all the major schools. From fifteenth-century Flanders, there is a pair of panels by Rogier van der Weyden. The seventeenth-century collection yields Peter Paul Rubens’ graphic The Love of the Centaurs (1635) and Rembrandt’s Figure of an Old Man. Featured eighteenth-century works include those by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Thomas Gainsborough – in particular the stunning Portrait of Mrs Lowndes-Stone – and Francesco Guardi. The big names of nineteenth- to twentieth-century France – Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Jean-François, Millet and Auguste Renoir – are all represented, along with John Sargent and J.M.W. Turner’s vivid Wreck of a Transport Ship (1810). Elsewhere you’ll find ceramics from Spain and Italy, Sèvres porcelain and furniture from the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI, and assorted Italian tapestries and textiles. The last room features an amazing Art Nouveau collection of 169 pieces of jewellery by René Lalique; the highlight is the fantastical Peitoral-libélula (Dragonfly breastpiece) brooch, half-woman, half-dragonfly, decorated with enamel work, gold, diamonds and moonstones.
Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian was the Roman Abramovich of his era, making his millions from oil but investing in the world’s best art rather than top footballers. Born of wealthy Armenian parents in Istanbul in 1869, he followed his father into the oil industry and became oil consultant to the Ottoman court. In 1911 he set up the Oil Petroleum Company, raking in 5 percent of the company’s vast profits, most of which he invested in England where he chose to live. During this time, his legendary art-market coups included buying works from the Leningrad Hermitage after the Russian Revolution of 1917. During World War II, his Turkish background made him unwelcome in Britain. Gulbenkian literally auctioned himself and his art collections to whoever would have him: Portugal bid security, an aristocratic palace home (a marquês was asked to move out) and tax exemption, to acquire one of the most important cultural patrons of the century. From 1942 to his death in 1955, he accumulated one of the best private art collections in the world. His dying wish was that all of his collection should be displayed in one place, and this was granted in 1969 – a century after his birth – with the opening of the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian. The museum continues to buy works of art with his funds to this day, much of it for the Centro de Arte Moderna, which was opened in 1984.