Only the Best:

The Calouste Gulbenkian Collection

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Nov. 16, 1999 to Feb. 27, 2000

Objets de Joie

"Fete at Rambouillet" by Jean-Honoré Fragonard

"Fête at Rambouillet," or "The Isle of Love," by Jean-Honoré Fragonard

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 Lalique.

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."

"Portrait of a Young Woman" by Domenico Ghirlandaio

"Portrait of a Young Woman," by Domenico Ghirlandaio, circa 1485

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 poignant women.

"Helena Fourment" by Peter Paul Rubens"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 Germain (1726-1791).

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 in 1775.

"Mrs. Lowndes-Stone" by Sir Thomas GainsboroughGainsborough, 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.

"Crouching Flora" by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux

"Crouching Flora" by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, circa 1873

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.

"Harvest of Innocence," a book on coping with risky behavior by Michele Leight, is at and at

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