Calouste Gulbenkian: Entrepreneur, Philanthropist and Patron of the Arts

When wandering through the streets of Lisbon it’s difficult to avoid hearing the name ‘Gulbenkian’ springing from the lips of avid tourists and locals alike. A main temple of culture and appreciation for the arts, the Calouste Gulbenkian museum holds one of the largest private collections of art in the world, encompassing everything from ancient Egyptian sculpture to contemporary photography.


This incredible display of opulence and adoration of the artistic sensitivity in all its forms begs the question: Who was Calouste Gulbenkian?


Born in 1869 in Constantinople, Calouste was member of a well-to-do family Armenian family of aristocratic origins. His father, Sarkis Gulbenkian, was employed in trade, namely the importing and exporting of oil, supplying even the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire which allowed him to amass a great fortune. As was expected of the family’s means and status, Calouste was sent to the best school in Kadikoy (Armenia) and after spending some time in Marseille in order to perfect his french, moved on to pursue higher education at King’s College London.


Gulbenkian studied a wide range of subjects, being especially apt at Physics which allowed him to graduate with a first class degree in engineering and applied sciences at the tender age eighteen. Soon after his marriage to Nevarte Essayan in 1892, the Gulbenkian family was forced to flee Armenia in order to escape the genocide perpetrated by Sultan Abdul Hamid II and his pogroms.


Young Calouste decided to settle in London in order to pursue a career in business, which soon earned him the nickname ‘Mr Five Per Cent’ due to his habit of retaining five percent of the shares of the oil companies he backed. Although he was not the first businessman to predict the importance of Iraq’s oil reserves, he attempted to exploit the natural resources of the area rationally and through international cooperation.

Gulbenkian had begun collecting wonderful pieces of art several decades before his death in 1952- These works accumulated in his house in Paris and reached a total of 6400 works including Guardis, Mogidlianis and Rembrandts. After his death a large part of Gulbenkian's wealth was devoted to the creation of the Calouste Gulkenkian Foundation which aims to support artistic and educational endeavours.



On April 1957, the foundation acquired a large area of land, in which the headquarters of the organisation were to be built. A competition was launched in order to find the adequate architect and designer for the garden. This task was awarded to a team of landscaping architects including Alverto J Pessoa and Pedro Cid. The building born out of their work is the current Calouste Gulbenkian Museum which attracts thousands of visitors per year with its abundance of artistic masterpieces and the Japanese-inspired realm of tranquility of its garden.


The grounds which surround the museum are worth the visit in themselves. A bamboo forrest next to a stepped stream provides an oasis of peace which transports you directly to Japan as the sound of running water mixes with the cries of ducks. However, the combination with the extraordinary works inside the museum, especially the flemish masters such as Jan van Eyck make the visit to the museum compulsory for anyone visiting the city.


Angélica O, Year 12

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