The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum lies in a northern suburb of Lisbon and is, quite simply, the most stunning museum. The collection was donated by an Armenian financier, Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian on his death in 1955. Born in 1869 in Cappadocia (Turkey), he assembled an eclectic and unique collection of over 6000 pieces that reflected his background and travels (raised in England, lived in France and died in Portugal) with pieces from all over the world and dating from antiquity until the early 20th century, including examples from ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, Babylonia, Armenia, Persia, Islamic Art, Europe and Japan.
While he was still alive, the collection was split between his home in Paris and various institutions (for example, the Egyptian collection was on loan to the British Museum). Gulbenkian was also interested in enriching public collections and he contributed generously either financially or by donating pieces to cultural institutions such as the Louvre in Paris, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon.
But he wished to bring his collection together at some point and started discussions in 1937 with Kenneth Clark (the then Director of the National Gallery) about a Gulbenkian Institute at the National Gallery in England. However, during the war he was declared an “enemy under the act” by the British Government because he had followed the French Government to Vichy as a member of the Persian diplomatic delegation. The British confiscated his income from the Iraq Petroleum Company and while this was returned after the war, it was something he never forgot. He therefore initiated talks with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, but on his death he specified that his works of art should come to Lisbon and a foundation and museum be established to protect and exhibit the collection.
The collection today is split into different periods and genres for the visitor. It starts with the earliest period, ancient Egypt, with pieces from the Old Kingdom through to the Roman period. This is followed by a Classical Antiquity section, featuring ceramics, glass and sculpture with a large collection of Greek coins and engraved gems. Next there is a large room dedicated to the Islamic art collection which includes carpets, tiles, textiles, books, glass and ceramics. There is also a beautiful section of illustrated books from the Middle Ages, together with pieces from Armenia and Far Eastern art.
Moving on there is a second large area dedicated to European art. It starts with 16th century Flemish and Italian tapestries and furniture and includes 18th century French painting and 19th century European sculpture. A significant piece in this section is the statue of Diana by Jean-Antoine
Houdon. This is said to have been a favourite piece of Gulbenkian and it had belonged to Catherine the Great of Russia. Gulbenkian purchased it from the Hermitage Museum in 1930.
The wonderful collection of 18th and 19th century paintings include Turner, Corot, Manet, Renoir (including a particularly fine Portrait of Madame Claude Monet), Monet, Burne-Jones, Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyke and Singer Sargent. There is also a most beautiful Rodin sculpture, The Blessings. A true highlight of the collection is saved for last - a room filled with the most exquisite pieces made by René Lalique. These include both jewellery and objets d’art. Stunning pieces include the Dragonfly Woman, a broach of gold, enamel, moonstones and diamonds and Serpents, a gold and enamel pectoral with nine intertwining serpents forming a knot at the top of the piece with eight serpents hanging down in cascading form. Gulbenkian purchased this late 19th century piece direct from Lalique in 1908. And there are many, many more absolutely stunning pieces. It is worth visiting the museum just to see this wonderful collection of Lalique.