Calouste Gulbenkian Museum – Lisbon

An online article claims that the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum has one of the finest and most valuable collections of art in Europe. Another says it is the best museum in Portugal. As we headed there on a rainy day, we wondered whether it would live up to the hype.

The museum has several different components. The main feature is the Founders Collection, comprising thousands of pieces that were collected by Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian and subsequently donated to the city of Lisbon. The museum was built specifically to house this collection, which spans 4,000 years of history.

The pieces in the Founders Collection are generally displayed in neatly divided groupings, although the paintings can be found spread between different sections. The themes of these groups include Egyptian art, Greco-Roman art, Mesopotamia, the Islamic Orient, Armenia, the Far East, 18th century French furniture and decorative arts, book art, sculpture, paintings and works by René Lalique. We found that each of these areas had enough pieces to get an appreciation of the art form, without being overwhelming. There’s a sampling of each genre or location rather than an extensive collection, which we appreciated.

It is an eclectic collection that allowed us to view a range of items from Egyptian funerary statues to Greek gold coins, Islamic tile work, decorated books and bindings, mosque lamps, Persian rugs, decorative velvet, Chinese ceramics, French furniture, sculptures and some wonderful paintings.

The paintings continued the theme of quality over quantity with some of the big name artists being represented: Van Dyke, Rembrandt, Rubens, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Degas, Thomas Gainsborough and J.M. William Turner. And sharing space with these paintings are several sculptures by Rodin. This was my favourite section of the collection, although I enjoyed them all.

The Founders Collection is all on one level and is arranged so that it is easy to follow from one section to the other. It took us about 90 minutes to complete. We thoroughly enjoyed it and still had time to visit the other parts of the museum.


The main building houses the Founders Collection and galleries for two temporary exhibits. A second building houses the permanent Modern Collection and another temporary exhibit. The basic admission fee of €10 gets you into the two permanent collections. An all-inclusive ticket (€14) also provides access to the temporary exhibits. At the time of our visit, the temporary exhibits were ‘Beyond the Mirror’ (ends 5 February), ‘Ana Hatherly and the Baroque. In a Garden Made of Ink’ (ends 15 January) and ‘Mariana Silva. Camera Trap’ (ends 26 February).

The Beyond the Mirror exhibition was quite interesting. It explores the use of mirrors in art and included a variety of styles and approaches. There were some interesting pieces and the exhibit was well laid out. Worth a visit.

Next up was the Ana Hatherly exhibit but we didn’t linger there. We just didn’t appreciate the work on display. I didn’t even take any photos!

We were beginning to tire but there was still more to see. We crossed through the park with its water features and duck pond to reach the second building and the third of the temporary exhibits. The ‘Camera Trap’ was another exhibit that didn’t hold our attention for long. It was a video of two people having a conversation (with English sub-titles) about whether the camera is an important or relevant tool for capturing true species interactions in ecosystems. The short part that we watched failed to capture our attention so we left and popped into the cafe for a drink.

After our short break, we headed into the Modern Collection, which dates from the creation of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in 1956 and is considered to be the most complete collection of modern Portuguese art in the world. The collection is split over three levels and includes sculptures, paintings and other types of modern art. Some of the art clearly required a lot of skill to create whilst other pieces looked like something I’d find in a school art project. Some left us wondering what the artist was thinking (and perhaps that’s the point). Like beauty, art is in the eye of the beholder. I couldn’t understand how a slice of pineapple sitting on top of a stool is art. But I enjoyed an installation of 34 boom-boxes, arranged on a wall to spell out ‘NO’ whilst recordings of voices saying ‘yes’ were playing out of them. As is usually the case with modern art, I found some pieces that I enjoyed and others that did nothing for me.

For me, the Modern Collection and the temporary exhibits paled in comparison to the Founders Collection. The Founders Collection is the clear star of the museum. I would go back to see it again but likely wouldn’t bother with the rest of the museum. Whilst not ‘the finest and most valuable collection of art in Europe’ it is most certainly worth a visit.

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