The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum (Portuguese: Museu Calouste Gulbenkian) is a Portuguese museum in the civil parish of Avenidas Novas, in the municipality of Lisbon. Founded in conformity with Calouste Gulbenkian’s last will and testament, the museum accommodates the art collection of the similarly-named Foundation, that includes ancient and, some, modern art.
The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum was built to house the Art Collection of the wealthy Armenian financier Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian, born in Üsküdar (Istanbul) in 1869, who died in Lisbon in 1955. The Museum holds a collection of six thousand pieces and its galleries exhibit over one thousand and four hundred works divided into Egyptian Art, Greco-Roman Art, Mesopotamian Art, Eastern Islamic Art, Armenian Art, Far Eastern Art, Sculpture, Art of the Book, Painting, Decorative Arts and the work of René Lalique. The Painting collection includes works by such painters as Van der Weyden, Ghirlandaio, Rubens, Rembrandt, Guardi, Fragonard, Gainsborough, Turner, Corot, Renoir, Manet, Degas and Monet. Among the many sculptures, the famous marble original “Diana” by Houdon, which belonged to the Empress Catherine II of Russia is worthy of note.
The collection of works by René Lalique, which Calouste Gulbenkian acquired directly from the artist, is considered unique in the world not only for its quality but also its quantity. The Museum is part of a complex which comprises the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation head-office building, an Art Library, auditoria for concerts and conferences, a cafeteria and shops, and it has been awarded the Valmor Prize for Architecture in 1975, and classified National Monument in 2010. The Gulbenkian Park, a place where contact with nature is privileged, further includes the Modern Art Centre and an open-air auditorium.
The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum is part of the headquarters building and park of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon).
The building that houses the Founder’s Collection was designed by the architects Ruy Jervis d’Athouguia, Pedro Cid and Alberto Pessoa (1969) to accommodate around six thousand pieces amassed by Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian. It is located in the north of the Gulbenkian garden. The galleries of this building are home to displays of around a thousand pieces divided into groups corresponding to Egyptian art, Greco-Roman art, Mesopotamia, the Islamic Orient, Armenia, the Far East and, where Western art is concerned, sculpture, the art of the book, painting, eighteenth-century French decorative arts, and works by René Lalique. The collection of works by René Lalique, which Calouste Gulbenkian purchased directly from the artist, is considered to be unique in the world for its quality and quantity.
The design of the building is authored by Architects Alberto Pessoa, Pedro Cid and Ruy de Athouguia.
The phrase “only the best” accurately defines the criteria by which he was guided, and the passionate affection he developed for the objects.
His pieces were acquired through intermediaries, directly from public and private owners, or at auctions. Calouste Gulbenkian, despite his definite tastes, surrounded himself by personalities whom he trusted and who counselled him. It was Sir Kenneth Clark, at that time director of the National Gallery in London, who advised him to buy Manet’s Boy Blowing Bubbles. André Aucoc, Paris jeweller and goldsmith, played a pivotal role in the negotiations with the Soviet Government to buy important pieces from the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad in the two-year period from 1928 to 1930.
When the oil magnate grew tired of an object he would remove it from his collection by giving it away as a present, exchanging it or using it in part-payment for something else.
Gulbenkian was also interested in enriching public collections, he contributed most generously either by financial aid 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.
In 1938, with the nucleus of his collection in place, Calouste Gulbenkian expressed his interest in creating an institution in London, next to the National Gallery, that would be able to house the collection in its entirety. This included some of the greatest works of art in his collection recently placed on loan to the National Gallery, and Egyptian antiquities in the British Museum.
The project came to nothing with the outbreak of the II World War. A diplomatic incident that took place in 1942, led the British government to declare Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian a “technical enemy”, a classification that was revoked the following year, though it was one Gulbenkian never forgot.
In 1947, with the National Gallery restored after damage caused by German bombing raids, the new director Sir Philip Hendy requested permission to exhibit the paintings from the collection loaned in 1938. Gulbenkian refused as the previous director, Sir Kenneth Clark, in whom the collector had total confidence had resigned. In the same year, Sir Leigh Ashton, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, approached Gulbenkian with a suggestion for the creation of a museum in London to house the entire collection. In 1947, exactly the same invitation was put forward by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, which proposed to exhibit all the works deposited in London. In 1948, the Egyptian antiquities from the British Museum were sent to the United States. These were followed, in 1950, by the paintings that had been on loan in the National Gallery in London.
The majority of the collection remained in his house on the Avenue d’Iéna, in Paris, a property he acquired, in 1922, from the collector Rodolphe Kann and which, for four years underwent extensive adaptation to install his works of art.
When Calouste Gulbenkian made his definitive will in Lisbon on June 18th, 1953, he specified that his works of art should come to Lisbon, and along with the Foundation to be instituted, a museum should also be built to protect and exhibit the collection. The project for a museum and foundation that had been planned for London and pondered over by Washington was put into operation in Lisbon.
While proposals for the construction of the museum and foundation headquarters were being studied, the 18th century Palácio Pombal at Oeiras, near Lisbon was prepared to house the works of art that mainly came from London, Washington and Paris.
Negotiations with the French Government were extremely complex particularly when it came to priceless masterpieces from the royal palaces at Versailles and Fontainebleau, as well as the Houdon sculptures from the Gulbenkian residence in the Avenue d’Iéna, in Paris. A combined legal and diplomatic effort was made by the administration of the Gulbenkian Foundation, in conjunction with the Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and André Malraux, then French Minister for Culture. This enabled the rest of the collection to be shipped, with no restrictions, to Lisbon where it arrived on June 16th, 1960.
For the first time, the 6,440 objects acquired by Calouste Gulbenkian were finally together under the same, albeit temporary, roof just as he had always wished. In the succeeding months a number of items from the collection were shown to the Portuguese public at various exhibitions that took place at the beginning of the sixties. On July 20th, 1965, to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the death of the founder, 300 objects from the Gulbenkian collection were put on permanent display to the public. In 1969, the works of art left the Palácio Pombal for the new museum, at last grouped together as an entity.
The project for the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and Museum, inaugurated in 1969, was the result of a limited competition that took place from, 1959 to 1960 between three teams of architects.
The ambitious and detailed specifications being based on the presupposition that the new building was to serve as “a perpetual homage to the memory of Calouste Gulbenkian, and its lines were to reflect the essential features of his character – concentrated spirituality, creative force and simplicity of life”.
The project had to take into consideration various types of installations to house the museum, auditoriums and library and also the administrative and technical services of the foundation. The site chosen was the Parque de Santa Gertrudes in Palhavã, Lisbon (the present site).
From the three solutions jointly presented that of the team made up of the architects Ruy Jervis d’Athouguia, Pedro Cid and Alberto Pessoa was selected as fulfilling the requirements of the commission to produce a sober, dignified building in a unified architectural setting. A large number of specialists in various areas worked on the project co-ordinated by the winning team.
The remaining two projects were by an architectural team made up of Arnaldo Araújo, Frederico George and Manuel Laginha, and the other by Formosinho Sanches, Arménio Losa and Pádua Ramos.
The existing architectural ensemble, simple in line with different areas ably linked together, is surrounded by a green area designed by the landscape architects Gonçalo Ribeiro Telles and António Viana Barreto, with lawns, trees, pools and even an open-air amphitheatre. The exterior of the museum is like a massive rectangular parallelepiped set on one of its longer sides where the use of concrete and granite creates a mellow chromatic equilibrium. Planned in relation to each object collected by Calouste Gulbenkian, on the lower floor it has a Temporary Exhibition Gallery, a small auditorium, a museum shop and cafeteria as well as the Art Library.
A defining mark in Portuguese museum architecture, the edifice of the Museum is organised round two gardens with numerous tall picture windows that enable the visitor to enjoy Nature and Art.
A noteworthy example of the latest trends in modern Portuguese architecture of the 1960s, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation was awarded the Valmor Prize for Architecture in 1975, and classified “National Monument” in 2010.
The permanent exhibition galleries are distributed in chronological and geographical order to create two independent circuits within the overall tour.
The first circuit highlights Oriental and Classical Art on display in the Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Mesopotamian, Eastern Islamic, Armenian and Far Eastern Art.
The second covers European Art with sections dedicated to the Art of the Book, Sculpture, Painting and the Decorative Arts particularly 18th century French art and the work of René Lalique.
In this circuit a wide-ranging number of pieces reflect various European artistic trends from the beginning of the 11th century to the mid-20th century.
The section begins with work in ivory and illuminated manuscript books, followed by a selection of 15th, 16th and 17th century sculptures and paintings.
Renaissance art produced in Flanders, France and Italy is on display in the next room. French 18th century decorative arts have a special place in the museum with outstanding gold and silver objects and furniture, as well as paintings and sculptures. These decorative arts are followed by galleries exhibiting a group of paintings by the Venetian Francesco Guardi, 18th and 19th century English paintings, and finally a superb collection of jewels and glass by René Lalique, displayed in its own room.