The biggest pleasure of a visit to the Museu Gulbenkian is the chance it offers to compare and contrast pieces of art from so many places in the world and from so many different periods of history. The diverse collection ranges from ancient Egyptian sculptures to twentieth-century Lalique jewellery, via works by heavyweights such as Manet, Monet, Renoir, Turner and Rembrandt.
You start off in the small Egyptian room displaying art from the Old Empire (c.2700 BC) up to the Roman era, followed by the Greco-Roman room which features beautifully preserved glassware, jewellery and coins. Then move to the Eastern Islamic arts section with its Turkish tiles, mosque lamps, sumptuously illustrated manuscripts and fine carpets, while art from the Far East includes Chinese porcelain and stunning fourteenth-century lacquerwork from Japan.
The highlight, however, is the painting collection – a kind of romp through some of the best art from the European schools, including Flemish masters from the fifteenth century, Rubens’ graphic The Love of the Centaurs (1635) and eighteenth-century works by Fragonard, Francesco Guardi and Gainsborough – in particular the stunning Portrait of Mrs Lowndes-Stone. The big names of nineteenth- to twentieth-century France (Degas, Millet) are all represented, as are Sargent and Turner: don’t miss the latter’s vivid Wreck of a Transport Ship (1810).
Leave time, too, to explore the Sèvres porcelain, Louis XV and Louis XVI furniture and assorted Italian tapestries and textiles. The final room features the amazing Art Nouveau jewellery of René Lalique (1860–1945); the highlight is the fantastical Peitoral-libélula (Dragonfly breastpiece) brooch, half-woman, half-dragonfly, decorated with enamel work, gold, diamonds and moonstones.