John and Dominique de Menil began actively collecting art in the 1940s, ultimately amassing nearly 16,000 paintings, sculptures, decorative objects, prints, drawings, photographs, and rare books. They were deeply influenced by three figures: Father Marie-Alain Couturier, an advocate for incorporating modern art into the Catholic Church; the international art dealer Alexander Iolas; and the esteemed curator Jermayne MacAgy. As early as 1950, the de Menils began curating exhibtions and lending works to major museum exhibitions.
An early core strength of the growing collection was European art: Surrealist works by Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, René Magritte, Man Ray, and Yves Tanguy, as well as Cubist and School of Paris paintings by Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso. By the 1960s the de Menils had gravitated toward the major American postwar movements of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism. Over the years they enjoyed close personal friendships with many of the artists whose work they collected, including Victor Brauner, Max Ernst, Jasper Johns, Yves Klein, René Magritte, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol.
As modernists, the de Menils recognized the profound formal and spiritual connections between contemporary works of art and the arts of ancient and indigenous cultures, and they broadened the collection to include works from classical Mediterranean civilizations and the Byzantine Empire, as well as an array of objects from Africa, the Pacific Islands, and the Pacific Northwest.
Stemming in part from an increased disillusionment with conventional museum practice the couple eventually began thinking about building a museum of their own. At the time of John de Menil’s death in 1973, serious architectural discussions were underway. Surviving her husband by a quarter of a century, Dominique de Menil pursued their dream and opened the museum in 1987..