Calouste Gulbenkian revealed his passion for art at an early age. This reflected his origins in Cappadocia–a major crossroads of religions and art–and Constantinople–another crossroads of civilizations and the capital of the Romans, Greeks, and Ottoman Turks. Throughout his life, he assembled an eclectic and unique collection that was influenced by his travels and his personal taste, and sometimes involved lengthy and complex negotiations with the leading experts and specialist dealers. His collection now totals over 6,000 pieces from all over the world, dating from antiquity until the early twentieth century (including examples from ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, Babylonia, Armenia, Persia, Europe, and Japan). Gulbenkian derived considerable pleasure from his collection, which he referred to as his “children”.
Calouste Gulbenkian’s collection of paintings includes works by Bouts, Van de Weyden, Lochner, Cima de Conegliano, Carpaccio, Rubens, Van Dyck, Hals, Rembrandt, Guardi, Gainsborough, Romney, Lawrence, Fragonard, Corot, Renoir, Nattier, Boucher, Manet, Degas and Monet. A favourite sculpture was Houdon’s famous Diana, which had belonged to Catherine of Russia and which Gulbenkian purchased from the Hermitage Museum in 1930.
Fiercely protective of his “children”‘s welfare, Gulbenkian could also be extraordinarily generous in lending and donating works from his collection to public museums around the world. In 1936, his collection of Egyptian antiquities was entrusted to the care of the British Museum, while the finest paintings went on loan to the National Gallery. Later, in 1948 and 1950, the same works would be sent on to the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
Gulbenkian derived considerable pleasure from his collection, which he referred to as his “children”.
The Collector’s home – 51, Avenue d’Iéna, Paris
As his collection expanded and as he grew older, Gulbenkian became ever more concerned about how to preserve his achievement, and also how to avoid paying taxes on his legacy. In 1937 he started discussions with one of his art advisors, Kenneth Clark, about a “Gulbenkian Institute” to be built next to the National Gallery in London. He was declared an “enemy” by the British Government during the Second World War because he had followed the French Government to Vichy as a member of the Persian diplomatic delegation. The British temporarily sequestered his share of the Iraq Petroleum Company (as TPC was now known). Although both steps were regulations of a kind imposed by all countries during wartime Gulbenkian chose to take them as personal slights. He began looking elsewhere for a permanent home for his art collection and the international foundation he planned to endow. He considered the National Gallery of Art in Washington as a potential home for his collection, working closely with its director, John Walker.
At the time of his death in 1955 Gulbenkian does not appear to have decided where he wanted his collection to be housed and simply left it his trusted advisor, Cyril Radcliffe to take such decisions as he saw fit. One thing was clear: Gulbenkian wanted his collection of antiquities, sculpture, painting and furniture displayed together under one roof, rather than scattered across the galleries of a larger museum.
Besides being a discerning collector, Calouste Gulbenkian was a generous philanthropist. In keeping with family tradition he supported a larger number of Armenian charities, including the S. Pirgiç Hospital in Istanbul, where his parents are buried. He left the majority of his collection of Armenian art to the Armenian museum in Jerusalem. His philanthropy was by no means limited to the Armenian community however. Throughout his long life Gulbenkian made regular donations to a panoply of other good causes, avoiding public recognition wherever possible.