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  • Writer's pictureFrancisca Gigante, MA

A Brief History of the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon

What is the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum?

The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum is a museum of art that was founded by the immensely wealthy British-Armenian businessman Calouste Gulbenkian.

Calouste Gulbenkian Museum

Xauxa, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Calouste Gulbenkian Museum History

Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian was one of the 20th century’s richest people. When he died in Lisbon in 1955, he left his enormous fortune to a new foundation that has since become one of the most important national and international institutions in the art world.

Gulbenkian was born in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1869. His parents were Armenian, and like tens of thousands of Armenians during this period Gulbenkian became an émigré. After graduating in Engineering from King’s College London he became a British citizen, and embarked upon a career in the ascendent oil industry. He spent much of his working life between London and Paris before finally settling in Portugal. Gulbenkian amassed his vast wealth from investments in the development of oil fields, refineries, and mines on five separate continents. Throughout his career Gulbenkian maintained a policy of retaining five percent of the oil companies he developed, thereby earning himself a catchy, if prosaic, nickname: ‘Mr Five Per Cent’.

Early in Gulbenkian’s career, a taste for collecting and a philanthropic streak became apparent. In 1956, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation was established. Its headquarters, located here in Lisbon where Gulbenkian lived from 1942 until his death, was designed by architects Ruy d’Athouguia, Alberto Pessoa and Pedro Cid. Their Modernist complex was opened in 1969 and is composed of horizontal buildings where concrete, stone, and bronze glass predominate. Housed within is the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, largely formed from its namesake’s own private collection. Next door you can also find the Modern Art Centre (or CAM for short), which holds one of the most important collections of Portuguese modern and contemporary art, as well as an art-focused library, a scientific research institute, and a wonderful garden which hosts occasional open-air concerts.

Gulbenkian’s enduring passion for art reflected where his family had lived, Cappadocia and Constantinople, a crossroads of civilizations. Gulbenkian treasured his collection throughout his life and referred to the works of art in his care as his ‘children’. The result is an eclectic collection of works of art, antiquities and furniture, spanning a temporal range from Ancient Egypt and Greece, Babylon and Persia, up to the early 20th century. Within the foundation’s collection, you can also find works commissioned from Portuguese artists such as José de Almada Negreiros, Jorge Barradas, João Abel Manta, Manuela Jorge, and Vítor Fortes.

The museum’s galleries commemorate Calouste Gulbenkian according to a scheme that’s both chronological and geographic. One of the circuits takes you to Oriental and Classical Art, with Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Mesopotamian, Islamic Orient, Armenian, and Far Eastern Art. The second tour takes you on a journey through European art from the 11th to the 20th century, through sculpture, painting, and decorative arts, with a visit to an important cluster of jewellery and glass by René Lalique.

Today, the foundation's purpose is to improve people's quality of life through art, charity, science and education. To this end, the foundation has endowed scholarships, grants, and partnerships with social organisations. There’s no doubt that Calouste Gulbenkian would be proud of this cultural centre, which celebrates art, architecture and nature in an engaging and brilliant way.

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