History / Philosophy
The story of the Menil Collection begins in France with the 1931 marriage of John de Menil (1904–1973), a young banker from a distinguished military family, and Dominique Schlumberger (1908–1997), daughter of Conrad Schlumberger, one of the founders of the oil services company Schlumberger, Ltd. The de Menils left France during World War II for Houston, where John eventually directed Schlumberger’s worldwide operations. The de Menils quickly became key figures in Houston’s developing cultural life, as advocates of modern art and architecture. As patrons of architecture, they built one of the first International Style houses in Texas (Philip Johnson was the architect) and the Rothko Chapel. Surviving her husband by twenty-five years, Dominique built the museum that bears the family name as well as the Cy Twombly Gallery and the Byzantine Fresco Chapel Museum.
Throughout their lives the de Menils were also champions of civil and human rights. They were early supporters of Mickey Leland, Houston’s first black congressman, and in later years Dominique de Menil became active in promoting human rights worldwide.
"Perhaps only silence and love do justice to a great work of art."
–Dominique de Menil
The de Menils began seriously collecting in the 1940s after their move to the United States and, aided by the growth of Schlumberger Ltd., continued to acquire art into the 1970s.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the de Menils promoted modern art through the new Contemporary Arts Association and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (to which they gave gifts of art), and by founding the Art History Department at the University of St. Thomas and the Institute for the Arts at Rice University. They also initiated a number of ambitious research and publishing projects, such as the catalogues raisonnés of the artists René Magritte and Max Ernst, and the multiple-volume Image of the Black in Western Art.
John and Dominique de Menil were humanists who believed that art is a central part of the human experience. It is clear from their collection that they were deeply moved by the many ways individuals over different cultures and eras have revealed in art their understanding of what it means to be human.
This belief in the power of art explains the value the Menil Collection places on the primacy of the artwork, the individual artist’s intention, and the viewer’s unmediated experience in the gallery. That experience includes the contemplative, intimate quality of space and light, and the restrained aesthetic of display. Viewers will also note the absence of explanatory wall texts, docent tours, and acoustic guides: the Menil believes that a viewer’s encounter with a work of art should be immediate and direct, not conditioned by others’ thoughts and opinions about the work.
“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
“ I came up with a concept . . . we would rotate the works of art. . .but displayed in generous and attractive space. . . . The public would never know museum fatigue and would have the rare joy of sitting in front of a painting and contemplating it. Some great works would be shown alone. . . . Works would appear, disappear, and reappear like actors on a stage. Each time they would be seen with a fresh eye. Habit blunts vision.” –Dominique de Menil
“ ‘A museum should be a place where we lose our head,’ said [Father]
Couturier. . . . The truth is that we are not prepared to lose our head. We have been trained not to, trained by emphasis on analysis, on virtuosity, on ‘accomplishments.’ Except for music, the natural longing for enchantment is discouraged in our culture. And what is art if it does not enchant? Art is incantation. Like Jacob’s ladder it leads to higher realities, to timelessness, to paradise. It is the fusion of the tangible and the intangible; the old hierogamy myth—the marriage of heaven and earth.” –Dominique de Menil