The Rise of Islamic Art

1869 — 1939

On the year that marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Calouste Gulbenkian, this exhibition seeks to understand the growing fascination with Orientalism developed by the collector and his contemporaries, through masterpieces of Islamic art from the Founder's Collection and other important international collections.

Slider de Eventos

This exhibition draws on the Museum’s Islamic art collection to explore the personal and professional life of Calouste Gulbenkian and his collecting activities during the first decades of the 20th century.

Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian (1869-1955) was of Armenian origin, born in the Ottoman Empire, and educated in Europe. Throughout his adult life he brought together these diverse cultures, from East and West, in his work in the oil industry, his philanthropy, and his collecting.

The Middle East occupied a central place in Gulbenkian’s career and this exhibition analyses his art collection from the same region, partly through the prism of an individual biography, but also in light of the changing geo-political situation: the decline of the Ottoman Empire, colonialism and two world wars.

The category of ‘Islamic Art’ took shape during this time and even stimulated the creation of new artistic styles and art forms in Europe. Gulbenkian’s own passion for the art of Iran, Syria and Turkey is mirrored by the passion (and rivalry) of other collectors like Jean Paul Getty and  John D. Rockefeller, who were also making fortunes from oil extraction.

Using his own collections of art, books and archives, as well as some key loans from Musée du Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Victoria & Albert Museum, the exhibition aims to develop our understanding of the relationship between collecting and Realpolitik, pin-pointing the remarkable synergies between Gulbenkian’s collecting activities c.1900-1930 and concurrent developments in the field of ‘Islamic art’.

Curator: Jessica Hallett

Main Sponsor

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Get the Gulbenkian Museum App to access the free audio guide for this exhibition (in Portuguese and English).


Calouste Gulbenkian regarded himself and the art he collected as ‘Oriental’. In 1880s Europe, however, this term was replaced by ethnic descriptions, such as ‘Saracen’, ‘Arab’, ‘Persian’ and ‘Turkish’, sometimes with racist undertones. In the turn of the century, scholars started experimenting with religious terms, like ‘Muslim’ and ‘Muhammadan’, taken from the concept of ‘Christian’ art, but these turned out to be too limited as not all objects had religious functions. Subsequently, the adjective ‘Islamic’ was adopted, comprising objects made from Spain to India, from the time of the Prophet Muhammad to the eighteenth century.

In recent years the term ‘Islamic’ has been debated: while some scholars find it adequate, others argue that it is a Eurocentric construction of the ‘Other’.

Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian was born in 1869 in Scutari, Turkey, during the sultanate of Abdülaziz (r. 1861–76). In year of his birth, the Ottoman Empire’s official policy started promoting the unity across the diverse territories of the Empire, by granting Ottoman citizenship irrespective of ethnicity or religion. This measure was adopted in the face of imperial threats from Europe, was accompanied by Western-inspired modernization and enthusiasm for European art grew, including painting, photography, porcelain and glass

From the 1850s, oriental objects had begun arriving in Europe, entering the collections of wealthy men. In 1898, Calouste Gulbenkian had already settled in London, where he bought his first recorded objects from the collection of the pioneering French Orientalist, Charles Schefer. Wide appreciation of these objects led to a phenomenon of Islamophilia.

Iranian art was preferred over Arab and Turkish art, although some of the most highly esteemed works were later shown to have originated in Ottoman Turkey and not Iran, such as the Iznik ceramics. Gulbenkian’s collection reflects the evolution of these works, from exotic commodities to artistic masterpieces, expressed in important exhibitions. It was during this period that the category of ‘Islamic art’ began to be debated in Europe.

In 1906/7 large jars containing intact ceramics were discovered in Raqqa, Syria. Pieces from this ‘Great Find’ were introduced in the art market by Armenian dealers and Calouste Gulbenkian was one of the first collectors to buy these objects.

In fact, more than a quarter of Gulbenkian’s collection was acquired from Armenian dealers, who also acted as his intermediaries in the auction room. Many of these merchants operated extensive trading systems that crisscrossed the Middle East and became important mediators and disseminators of oriental culture in Europe and America.

Between 1912 and 1914 Calouste Gulbenkian brokered a series of deals with the Turkish Petroleum Company to exploit the exceptionally rich oil fields in Iraq, from which he later gained a 5% stake. The start of the First World War brought a close to late nineteenth-century enthusiasm for ‘Islamic art’.

In 1923, modern Turkey and Greece agreed to uproot 1.4 million people in a massive exchange of Christian and Muslim populations. Gulbenkian added his own lines to this map with the negotiation of the ‘Red Line Agreement’, establishing a huge oil cartel in the shape of the old Ottoman Empire.

At the end of the First World War, Western oil dependence led to the price of oil tripling. During these years Calouste Gulbenkian began buying Islamic art at high prices and in volume. His initial interest in ceramics was followed by a preference for the ‘art of the book’, which accompanied the international trends of the main museums.

As the European economy weakened throughout the 1920s, Gulbenkian’s competitors were more frequently Americans, often involved in the petroleum industry, such as Rockefeller Jr and Paul Getty. These collectors competed mainly for Persian carpets, which were major objects of prestige, signalling their connections with the Middle East.

In 1942, in the middle of the Second World War, Calouste Gulbenkian left Paris and settled in Lisbon, making the last acquisitions for his collection of ‘Islamic art’ in 1949. Between his last purchases is an enamelled glass beaker covered in exotic birds, which has been interpreted as a visualisation of the Sufi poem The Conference of the Birds.

The war changed the political and social organisation of the world, resulting in a global redistribution of power. The United States gained influence in the West, while the Soviet Union dominated Eastern Europe. In the Middle East and North Africa independence movements arose, causing social upheaval. All of these developments had deep and prolonged repercussions which we still feel today.


Talk with the curator Jessica Hallett (in Portuguese only)
Friday, 12 July, 15:00
Saturday, 20 July, 16:00
Saturday, 5 October, 16:00

Tour with the curator in English
Thursday, 25 July, 22 August and 19 September, 15:00

Talk with the curator and the guest Inês Brandão
Friday, 20 September, 17:00

Guided tours
Saturdays, 13 July; 31 August; 7, 14, 21 September, 15:00
Saturday, 27 July, 16:00

Guided tours in Portuguese, English or French
(+351) 217 823 800
[email protected]

More information
[email protected]

Islamic Art: Past, Present and Future
Friday, 4 October, 18:00
Know more 

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