By Michele Leight
Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian (1869-1955), oil
baron, philanthropist and art connoisseur was born in Istanbul
to a prosperous Armenian banking family. When he was 14, his father,
Sarkis Gulbenkian, gave him 50 piastres for successful schoolwork.
Calouste raced off to the bazaars with his "riches"
to buy old coins, which he loved. When he returned home, however,
he was chastised by his father for squandering his gift instead
of saving it.
Gulbenkian would remind his family "when
he was in the right sort of mood" that his purchase of the
coins laid the foundation for his collection, according to his
son-in-law, Kevork Essayan, who is quoted in "Calouste Gulbenkian,
Collector," by José Azeredo Perdigão (The Calouste
Gulbenkian Foundation, 1969, $39.95, available at the museum).
Gulbenkian would buy more coins as well as
medallions, and perhaps the most spectacular is a striking gold
Head of Alexander the Great (Roman, 3rd Century A.D. Gold) prominently
displayed in the first room of this exhibition and known as the
Aboukir Medallion. It was one of 11 Gulbenkian bought after 26
were found in 1902 and controversy over their authenticity raged
for half a century. The Metropolitan Museum’s catalogue notes,
however, that the controversy "has today been resolved in
favor of the medallions, in part thanks to the discovery of another
two pieces identical in technique and with a recognized provenance."
The Aboukir Medallion is therefore a fitting testimony to Mr.
Gulbenkian’s awesome connoisseurship, persistence and financial
success as the years and his collection progressed.
A little further on in the exhibition is a
spectacular medal cabinet in the Regency style, one of a pair
by Charles Crescent (French, 1685-1768), that is an very fine
resting place for the medallions and coins in the collection.
The rosewood cabinet’s doors are emblazoned with three putti
working a coin machine. Crescent himself considered it "worthy
of a place in a home of those who most esteem curiosities,"
the catalogue said.
In the grand style of the great acquisitors,
Gulbenkian did not limit his collecting fervor to one style, or
region, or category and his collection of thousands of objects,
of which only 77 are shown in this exhibition, range from the
Old Masters and Impressionists to antiquities, from carpets to
The coins may have launched the young Gulbenkian
as a collector, but it is women who clearly fascinated and captivated
him. His son-in-law made the following observation: "His
most constant preference indeed seems to have been for paintings
or sculptures where the bodies of women, both clothed and unclothed,
graceful or voluptuous, pay a loving and deeply felt homage to
the great masters of the past, to the visionaries who immortalized
their models - however humble they may have been - and raised
them to the ranks of the goddesses."
Domenico Ghirlandaio’s (Italian, Florentine
1449-1494) beautiful "Portrait of a Young Woman," circa
1485, shown above, for example, greets the viewer in the second
room. The luminosity and freshness of the subject, dressed in
a red Florentine gown and wearing a coral necklace, is handled
with a realism and naturalism typical of the last quarter of the
Fifteenth century; She is a forerunner of Leonardo Da Vinci’s
and Verrocchio’s realistic and pensive, yet timeless and
"Helena Fourment" shown at the left, by Peter
Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577-1640) was Gulbenkian’s favorite
painting and is one of the highlights of this show. Helena was
Rubens’s second wife; when they married, she was seventeen
and he was fifty-eight. Gulbenkian acquired it triumphantly in
a cloak-and-dagger deal from the Hermitage Museum, out-manuevering
no less an opponent than Sir Joseph Duveen, the legendary dealer
to some of the world’s wealthiest people, who offered more
money than Gulbenkian finally paid. Duveen was acting for himself
and for several millionaire partners whose names were not broadcast.
Facing a shaky economy in an insecure post-war period, the Soviet
authorities needed "hard cash" and decided to sell some
famous works of art, but insisted on discretion, which meant secrecy.
They needed to "save face", and Gulbenkian, who had
established contacts with the Soviet commercial agency in Paris,
completely understood the concerns of the Russians with regard
to adverse publicity. The American rivals placed their faith in
the powerful dollar and used tactics that offended the Soviets.
Duveen lost out to Gulbenkian’s stealth and quiet savvy.
Other "trophies" in the same deal
were two Rembrandts, "Diana" by Jean-Antoine Houdon
(French, 1741-1828) and some extravagant silver centerpieces for
Empress Elizabeth I of Russia (1741-62) by François-Thomas
The Rubens’s painting is a sumptuous yet
intimate portrait of his wife, resplendent in fine, luscious,
black satin, the entire composition rendered with confidence and
virtuosity. Helena clasps an ostrich feather, held at an angle
tht parallels the passing clouds in the background, her hands
painted in the rosy flesh tones which are a hallmark of Rubens.
This portrait, one of many of his wife, was painted towards the
end of his life and is a formal celebration of sensual pleasure,
happiness and life. Her light-colored sleeves and collar together
with the feather and a broad-brim black hat spotlight and frame
her face and bodice with Rubens's customary bravura.
One of Rubens’s most famous pupils was
Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641), who was court painter to Charles
I of England and was greatly admired by Sir Thomas Gainsborough
(British, 1727-1788). Van Dyck introduced to England the refined
portrait tradition of the subject standing full-length, "as
themselves," against a natural background. Gainsborough’s
portrait of the charming Mrs. Lowndes-Stone is painted in this
tradition and celebrates her marriage to her cousin Willian Lowndes-Stone
Gainsborough, best known for his "Blue Boy"
and "Pinky" portraits, was called ‘the Englishwoman’s
favourite painter’; the youthful, fresh beauty of the subject,
wearing a feathery soft, salmon-pink silk dress and a gold-trimmed
gauze shawl, accompanied by her faithful spaniel, dominates the
painting's grand and sophisticated style. Gainsborough’s
celebrated spontaneity captures his subject’s young and zestful
gaze. The painting, shown at the right, is delicious eye-candy.
While Rubens intensifies our focus on the individual, Gainsborough
gives almost equal weight to his subject's costume and her setting.
The former is powerful. The latter is elegant. These are both
classic, major works by these masters.
"Fête at Rambouillet," or "The
Isle of Love," by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806),
shown at the top of this article, on the other hand, is a startling
work that makes us appreciate this fanciful master of romance
anew. It is a mesmerizing and dramatic depiction of an imaginary
landscape, quite abstract in its swirling trees, which tower over
an approaching boat like waves, threatening to consume the revelers.
It was originally thought to show the visit of the royal family
to the Duc de Ponthieve’s estate at Rambouillet, or "aristocrats
at play," but more specialists now agree that it is Fragonard’s
imaginary setting for a fête. It is a spectacular tour de
force and one of Fragonard’s greatest works. It illustrates
the cover of the Gulbenkian Museum’s own soft-cover paintings
catalogue, which is also for sale at the Metropolitan. A very
similar version in gouache is in the collection of John Straus.
In his discussion of the work in "Fragonard," (The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, 1987), Pierre Rosenberg observed that "there
is magic to this painting; we can almost hear the rush of the
waters and feel the cool of the shade and the gentleness of the
sun. The great barren tree zigzagging across the composition...contributes
a golden note to the various blues and greens of the river, the
dense groves, the thick hedges, and the manicured trees. The Gulbenkian
picture - an ode to the forces of water in which the luxuriant
vegetation triumphs- is enchanting, disquieting and even sometwhat
frightening. The Island of Love is an 'epic dream' that
recalls Watteau, but the nostaglia and melancholy in his work
have been replaced, here, by poetry and escape." It is an
altogether original, dramatic and very exciting work.
Close beside Houdon’s striking, dark bronze
"Apollo," (Paris, 1790) is an exquisite marble sculpture
by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (French, 1827-1875). "Crouching
Flora" (circa 1873) was inspired by an ancient crouching
Venus in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The lustrous marble sculpture,
shown below, is softened to an almost wax-like perfection, heightening
the sensual beauty and eroticism of the form. Flora symbolizes
joy, love and youthful zest, which Carpeaux interprets sublimely.
François-Thomas Germaine's toddlers,
or "putti," without wings in silver, are showstoppers
for even the most disinterested passerby. Created as centerpieces
for Empress Elisabeth I of Russia, they must have charmed the
most jaded grand-dukes and duchesses as they made polite conversation
between mouthfuls of Stroganoff and caviar, candlelight playing
on the toddlers’ rumps and curls. For those who prefer gold,
there is one tureen from the Paris Service, also commissioned
by Empress Elizabeth.
The exhibition includes
"Boy Blowing Bubbles" by Edouard Manet (French, 1832-1883),
strongly recommended for purchase by Sir Kenneth Clark and the
cover illustration of the Metropolitan's catalogue, "The
Wreck of a Transport Ship," a great, swirling, powerful work
by J.M.W. Turner, two very lively and vibrant oils by Guardi (Venetian,
172-1793), "Regatta on the Grand Canal" and "The
Feast of the Ascension in the Piazza San Marco," which make
the viewer want to board a plane for Venice immediately and a
world-class book of illuminations, a folio from the "Iskandar-Sultan
Anthology" (Iranian, Shiraz, ca. 1410-1411), shown at the
right. This was presented as a gift to Gulbenkian by Baron Edmund
Rothschild. Other notable works in the show include the exquisite
"Presentation in the Temple" by Stefan Lochner, (German,
Cologne, about 1440-1451), numerous Egyptian antiquities, a Chinese
vase, many fine carpets, and René Lalique’s (1860-1945)
extraordinary "Serpent Brooch."
The lasting impression of this cross-cultural
blend of Islamic textiles and ceramics, the gold medallions, the
Christian books of hours and illustrated Persian volumes, the
French finery and the paintings and sculptures is the timelessness
of the one common denominator through the centuries: the extraordinary
quality of just about every piece in the collection.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the curators
of this show have done a wonderful job displaying the collection
in a series of small rooms, which heighten the viewers' sense
of intimacy with the individual works, as does the lighting. The
lavishly illustrated exhibition catalogue, "Only The Best,"
edited by Katherine Baetjer and James David Draper has a reproduction
of a bubble-blower by Manet on the cover and is an informative
and essential guide to the specific works, but all visitors should
also consider purchasing the separate, smaller catalogue of the
Gulbenkian Collection's paintings in Lisbon.
The painting catalogue reveals such other incredible
treasures as Rembrandt’s fabulous, helmeted "Pallas
Athena/Alexander." a mysterious and exquisite painting, a
very rare and magnificent Carpaccio, many more Guardis, a couple
of knock-out paintings by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, a stunning and
very surprising Jean-François Millet, two portraits by
Rogier van der Weyden; an excellent Jan Gossaert, a great Cima
de Conegliano; very fine portraits by Giovanni-Battista Moroni
and Guiliano Bugiardini; a sensational John Singer Sargent.
In 1934, Gulbenkian boarded a ship in Naples
bound for Cairo. He visited the Cairo Museum, where he was deeply
moved by the Tutankamun treasures, then went on to Aswan. Sunsets
on the Nile enchanted him and he grew concerned for the temples,
which were in danger of being submerged by the waters of the dam.
He wrote in his diary:
"……There is no doubt that these
temples are the precursors of the great Greek temples, and also
of our cathedrals."
Traveling on up the Nile to Luxor he stopped
at Edfu. The photogaph, which is blown up to giant scale at the
entrance of the exhibition and reproduced in the book by Pedigão,
taken of him seated at the foot of the god Horus, in the form
of a giant falcon, later inspired the sculptor Almeida to make
the statue of Gulbenkian, now in the Calouste Gulbenkian Park
in Lisbon. In the photograph, an elderly and robust Gulbenkian
sits on the feet of the big bird and looks demure but quite content
with his bushy white eyebrows and moustache, many years before
Sidney Greenstreet would covet "The Maltese Falcon."
An earlier photograph, shown at the left, in the Metropolitan
Museum's catalogue, shows him with a moustache and beard in a
very confident pose of a man ready to deal.
Gulbenkian was educated at Kings College in
London, where he graduated from the Department of Engineering
and Applied Sciences. He became a pioneer in the then developing
oil industry in the Middle East. He performed an integral role
in the organization of the Royal Dutch-Shell Group, and also served
as a liason between the Russian and American oil industries. For
his role in the negotiations, he received a five-percent commission
and would become known as "Mr. Five-Percent."
The Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon was opened
in 1969, 14 years after his death. Gulbenkian had moved to Lisbon
from Paris during World War II. Before he built his impressive
house on the Avenue d'Iena in Paris, Gulbenkian "had not
been able to keep his collection of masterpieces assembled in
one place," Mr. Perdigão noted in his book.
"Mr. Gulbenkian was very much a home-loving
person and hardly ever asked his friends, even close ones to his
house. To one person who was offended and surprised tht he should
surround himself with mystery, he replied one day that he was
an Oriental and that Orientals were not in the habit of unveiling
the women in their harems!" Perdigão wrote.
One woman he was decidedly disappointed in
not getting was Countess of Clinchón, a portrait
by Goya of a woman in the collection of the Dukes of Sueca. For
more than ten years, Gulbenkian sought to buy it, turning down
offers by a Rothschild of a very good Goya because he wanted the
best. When he discovered that the National Gallery in Washington
was possibly interested in it he wrote a letter in which he said
that "What is disquietening is that any approaches made by
American buyers always send prices soaring, and, although I am
always willing to pay full prices, I do not like to be made a
fool of." The dukes, however, decided not to sell the painting.
For those who would like to know more about
the man, there is the fascinating "Calouste Gulbenkian, Collector,",
in which his son-in-law, Kevork Essayan says it best when summing
up the man and the collector:
"As his taste improved he became interested
in great masterpieces only. When speaking about art, he would
say with no presumption of false humility – for he was fundamentally
a simple man – ‘only the best is good enough for me.’"
Which is great joy for all of us.