John and Dominique de Menil
The story begins in France with the 1931 marriage of John de Menil (1904–1973), a young banker from a 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, making their way to Houston, where John would eventually direct Schlumberger’s worldwide operations.
“John de Menil was a tough-minded capitalist,
a bon vivant ... a man who wanted to right wrongs and change society.
Dominique had a more contemplative nature, and a tendency to lose herself in reading and study ...They worked as a team.”
– The New Yorker The de Menils quickly became key figures in Houston’s developing cultural life as advocates of modern art and architecture and supporters of civil and human rights. They commissioned the architect Philip Johnson to design their home (one of the first International Style residences in Texas), where they hosted many of the leading artists, scientists, and civil rights leaders of the day.
During the 1950s and 1960s the de Menils promoted modern art through the Contemporary Arts Association (now the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (to which they gave gifts of art and funded the purchase of others). They also founded the art history department at the University of St. Thomas and the Institute for the Arts at Rice University.
The de Menils also initiated several scholarly research and publishing projects, such as the catalogues raisonnes of the artists René Magritte and Max Ernst, and the multiple-volume The Image of the Black in Western Art. Dominique, who would survive her husband by a quarter of a century, opened the Menil Collection in June of 1987.