John and Dominique de Menil
“Art: Take it off its marble pedestal and show it as a daily companion, refreshing, human and rich; witness of its time and prophet of times to come.”
—John de Menil During their lives together John and Dominique de Menil conceived of a different kind of American museum, one that would touch the emotions and the spirit as well as the intellect. “Art is primary,” Dominique said at the Menil Collection opening-day ceremonies on June 7, 1987. “Artists are the great benefactors of the world…[who] constantly open new horizons and challenge our way of looking at things. They bring us back to the essential.” The de Menils, who embraced the modern and progressive, believed in the spiritual powers of art. Their collection and the museum that houses it embody their core beliefs.
Parisians, Dominique Schlumberger and John de Menil met at a ball at Versailles in 1930—the kind of “chance encounter” that Dominique would come to cherish throughout her life. From an old-line Protestant family, she studied physics and mathematics at the Sorbonne. She was also destined to become an heiress to a great family fortune; her father, Conrad Schlumberger, with his brother Marcel, patented an electronic sounding device that has been called a "divining rod" for petroleum exploration. Jean de Menil (who later anglicized his name to John), a Catholic, came from a military family with a title bestowed by Napoleon. As newlyweds in Paris, the couple were captivated by Father Marie-Alain Couturier, a Dominican priest who was passionate about the role of contemporary art in the Church. As he told the young Dominique after she had converted to Catholicism, a museum “is a place where you should lose your head.”
With the approach of World War II the de Menils fled France. John, supervising Schlumberger operations in Romania at the time, aided the Resistance before reuniting with Dominique in 1941—in Houston, home of Schlumberger’s world headquarters.
The de Menils were determined to make a difference in Houston. To accommodate their expanding art collection and growing family (they would eventually have five children) they gave architect Philip Johnson one of his first commissions (an example of the International Style, contemporary with his own Glass House). Long and low-slung, with a flat roof and plain brick exterior, the de Menil residence would become an inspiration for the future museum (“its DNA,” as the house was later described by the Menil’s founding director, Walter Hopps). Over the years the de Menils invited well-known artists, writers, filmmakers, scholars, religious leaders, and politicians into their home.
The de Menils' collecting accelerated after 1945, when John returned home from a business trip to New York with a small Cézanne watercolor in his briefcase. With that $300 purchase the de Menils began actively collecting, focusing mostly on European paintings and American contemporary works, including, eventually, Pop Art, and Minimalism.
“As the idea of a museum slowly took shape,
I dreamed of preserving some of the intimacy I had
enjoyed with the works
— Dominique de MenilWith the de Menils, art and politics often were intertwined. When the City of Houston, for example, balked at John and Dominique’s gift of Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk because of its dedication to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the couple placed the sculpture in front of the Rothko Chapel, the sanctuary they built for all faiths. The institutions Dominique founded with John evolved into international forums that honor and further humanitarian causes. During her final decade, she deepened her involvement in social causes, joining with former President Jimmy Carter to establish the Carter-Menil Human Rights Foundation. She created an award, sponsored by the Rothko Chapel, given to those who struggle against oppression. A third award, the Oscar Romero Prize, was named after the slain El Salvadoran bishop.
Because of the de Menils a thriving film and media center is housed in Rice University’s art museum and the University of St. Thomas boasts a main campus design by Philip Johnson. De Menil gifts number among the major holdings of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Dominique, who would survive her husband by a quarter of a century, returned to the idea of building a museum, a project she and John had initially pursued with architect Louis Kahn. Some ten years after John’s death in 1973, she engaged the Italian architect Renzo Piano, then known for the high-tech, colorful boldness of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. Her directive to the architect was for a museum that was “small on the outside, but big as possible inside,” a place where works of art could breathe, where the visitor “would never know museum fatigue.”
It is no accident that the museum feels something like the de Menil residence, with its low profile and galleries awash in soft natural light. Some 16,000 works of art are on rotating display, juxtaposed in ways that create dialogues between eras and cultures, movements and beliefs.
Until her death at the age of 89, Dominique struck many as remarkably self-effacing. In the end she even shied away from calling herself a collector. “The very word,” she once said, “seemed to be charged with pretension.” She wanted “only to discover treasures, to bring them back home, like one makes a bouquet, without too much reflection and in the process for the joy of the eyes.” The Menil Collection—a public museum open free of charge to all who enter—is her gift to the people of Houston and to the world.