Ismail Gulgee: The Globally Famous Artist of Pakistan

Ismail Gulgee: The Globally Famous Artist of Pakistan

Ismail Gulgee – The Gulgeez (25 October 1926 – 16 December 2007) Pride of Performance, Sitara-e-Imtiaz (twice), Hilal-e-Imtiaz, was an award-winning, internationally famous Pakistani artist born in the city of Peshawar. He was a qualified engineer in the US and self-taught abstract painter and portrait painter. Before the year of 1959, as portraitist, he painted the entire Afghan Royal Family. From about 1960 on, he was noted as an abstract painter influenced by the tradition of Islamic calligraphy and by the American “action painting” idiom.

Biography of Ismail Gulgee

Ismail Gulgee was born on the day of 25 October 1926 at Karimpura locality in Peshawar, Pakistan. Initially, he went to Lawrence College Murree and then to Aligarh University to study civil engineering before heading off to US for continuing his higher education. Gulgee initiated to paint while acquiring his training as an engineer in the United States at Columbia University and then Harvard. His 1st exhibition was in the year of 1950.

Ismail Gulgee was a gifted and consummately skilled naturalistic portrait painter who had enjoyed (according to Partha Mitter) “lavish state support” and plenty of elite commissions in this capacity. Nonetheless, he was perhaps best known worldwide for his abstract work, which was inspired by Islamic calligraphy and was also influenced by the “action painting” movement of the 1950s and 1960s (Mitter notes that Elaine Hamilton was a powerful influence in this direction). This is perhaps a natural enough stylistic combination, since in both Islamic calligraphy and action painting a high value is placed on the unity and energy of gestural flow. As with the works of other action painters or abstract expressionists, Gulgee’s canvases were mostly quite large. He was also famous for using materials like mirror glass and gold or silver leaf in his oil paintings, so that they were in fact mixed media pieces.

In accordance with the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Gulgee’s calligraphy paintings are abstract and gestural interpretations of Arabic and Urdu letters. His sweeping layers of paint explore the formal qualities of oil paint while they make references to Islamic design elements.”

Starting in the 1960s (if not earlier), Gulgee also created sculptures, including bronze pieces that were (like so many of his paintings) calligraphic in form and inspiration, and sometimes particularly based on verses from the Quran.

His paintings were bright and full of color, but the paint was put on with high sensitivity, and paintings vibrate with intense feeling. Areas sing with luminous, thin color; thick blobs of paint pulsate with fiberglass tears, the brush swirls strong and free. The total effect utilized to be very free, yet considered and well thought out. They work enormously well, because it was all orchestrated with great care and concentration.

His son Amin Gulgee is also a renowned artist.

International and special assignments

Ismail Guljee, as he was popularly known, received several requests for his paintings internationally, from the Saudi royal family to the Islamabad presidency. Many of his works are placed in the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad. Guljee received various awards, involving from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Japan and France.

Exhibition and personal life

Gulgee’s exhibitions have mostly been available to some individuals. Keeping that in mind and high demand from public and lovers of his works, an art gallery for Gulgee has been developed in Clifton, Karachi near South City Hospital and Sea View Karachi. Gulgee mostly painted for his own inspirations and vision. Although selected paintings are available for sale in Gulgee art gallery. Gulgee was last based in Boat Basin in Karachi. He has a son Amin Gulgee.


Ismail Gulgee, his wife Zarrin Gulgee and a maid were found dead by strangulation in their house on the evening of 19 December 2007 by his servants. Police suspect that all 3 had been murdered. While the bodies were found on the 19th, officials report that they had apparently been deceased for 3 days, leading to a speculative death date of 16 December 2007. Their bodies were found bound and gagged in separate rooms of the house. The initial cause of death for all 3 has been attributed to suffocation. In accordance with press reports, his son reported that Gulgee’s car and driver are missing. Ismail Gulgee was buried on the evening of 20 December 2007, in Karachi city.




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