The Gulbenkian Museum

Callouste Gulbenkian was an oil magnate and collector, and bequeathed his treasures to Portugal; they are now housed at the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. You see at once that the collection was formed by the taste of an individual. There is nothing in it he didn’t like, and a bias in favour of some things that he did, such as Corot. I will write about the paintings, though they are preceded by a substantial array of ceramics, carpets, furniture and other objects, including the fine Torso of Pothos. There are two Monets, and I am not fond of Monet, but these are captivating. One shows two tall-masted boats in harbour, which together with their reflections make up a composition in long lines. The other is of ice breaking up over a body of water, and is a study in texture. A number of French portraits from around the eighteenth century possess a depth of character that feels quite modern: Mademoiselle Sallé by De La Tour looks right at you. Rembrandt’s Old Man, his finger resting lightly on his cane, hangs next to an old woman by Franz Hals; on the other side is Rembrandt’s Pallas Athene wearing her helmet, which dominates the painting, making it seem more still life than portrait — yet the face defines one pole of the chiaroscuro, like the white in a black and white photo print. A boy blowing a bubble by Manet is paired with another cheeky fellow with a handful of cherries, rather in the manner of Murillo. At the very beginning of the paintings are two Van der Weyden miniatures: Saint Catherine, instantly recognisable even without her wheel, perhaps because the artist had seen Crivelli’s St. Catherine which is now in the Ashmolean in Oxford; and St. Joseph as an old man with another penetrating gaze. Turner, Ruisdael and Hubert Robert reveal Gulbenkian’s taste for romantic seascapes and landscapes. There is a whole roomful of Venice through the eyes of Francesco Guardi. Two fine portraits by Van Dyck and Rubens show the more thoughtful side of both artists. I will return to the Corots in a post of their own.

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