John and Dominique de Menil

Calling the Menil Collection a gift to her adopted city as she cut the ceremonial ribbon when the museum building opened on June 4, 1987, Dominique de Menil acknowledged all those who had journeyed with her to the auspicious day: the generous people of Houston; her French ancestors; the family members who surrounded her, including children and grandchildren; curators, conservators, and other staff; architect Renzo Piano. She credited her late husband, John, with opening her eyes and her heart to art. Above all, she thanked artists—all artists, from prehistoric times to the present day. Believing in the spiritual power of art, John and Dominique de Menil built what has been called one of the finest personal collections of the modern era. Still growing and housed in a landmark of modern architecture, the Menil is a local treasure and a global destination: an urban oasis open free of charge to all situated in a park and a “neighborhood of art.”

Making Art Accessible

To the de Menils art was to be experienced in an intensely personal way. Art, said Dominique, is “primary,” as essential as the air we breathe—a necessity for all, in John’s view. These simple yet sophisticated concepts lie at the heart of the Menil Collection. Given their passion for collecting and also sharing art, it is perhaps not surprising that, despite their different circumstances, John and Dominique found each other at a crowded ball at Versailles. The year was 1930. She was an heiress with degrees in physics and mathematics from the Sorbonne; he was a young noble of modest means and less formal education. Her father Conrad Schlumberger, with his brother Marcel, had patented a device that forever changed petroleum exploration. Born Jean but Anglicizing his name after he arrived in Houston, John was a Catholic and hailed from a military family with a title bestowed by Napoleon in 1813. Married in 1931, the Paris newlyweds fell under the spell of Father Marie-Alain Couturier, a visionary Dominican priest who was a strong advocate of modern art, seeing a place for abstract canvases in the most sacred of settings. As for museums, he said, they are places “where you should lose your head.” The idea resonated with the young couple.

Had it not been for World War II, the de Menils—with two daughters and a son on the way—surely would have stayed in Paris. By 1941, the family had relocated to Houston, home of Schlumberger’s world headquarters. The de Menils were determined to fit in and to make a difference. To accommodate their expanding art collection and their growing family—a second son was born in 1945, a third daughter in 1947—the de Menils built a house that broke the mold, architect Philip Johnson’s first residential commission. Filled with art and frequented by artists, their home was a hotbed of ideas and a hatchery for the museum—“its DNA,” said the Menil’s Founding Director, Walter Hopps. The de Menils kept a salon, inviting artists, writers, filmmakers, and scholars into their parlor and to lively kitchen-table dinners. Max Ernst, René Magritte, and Andy Warhol were among them, along with filmmakers Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, and Michaelangelo Antonioni; Henri Cartier-Bresson and Eve Arnold photographed the family at home.

The rapid pace and growth of the de Menils’ art collection was surprising, given its modest beginnings. In 1945, John returned from a business trip to New York with a small Cézanne watercolor, for which he had paid $300. That purchase led to acquisitions of more European paintings and American contemporary works, including, eventually, Pop Art.

Sharing with the World

John died in 1973, shortly after the dedication of Rothko Chapel—a project that embodies the de Menil belief in the spiritual power of art and the importance of dialogue, human rights, and social justice—and just as he and Dominique began to contemplate building a public museum to house their collection. A decade into her widowhood, Dominique engaged Renzo Piano, then known as one of the architects of the high-tech and colorful Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, to design the museum she and John envisioned. Her directive to the architect was for a museum that was “small on the outside yet large on the inside,” a place where works of art could breathe, where the visitors would never know museum fatigue.

The museum feels something like Menil House, modest in scale and aglow with soft natural light. Works of art are on rotating display, deliberately and thrillingly juxtaposed, creating dialogues between eras and cultures, movements and beliefs. Piano described the museum during a visit to Houston as nothing less than a “portrait of Dominique: discreet, intelligent, welcoming, elegant.”

Dominique remained graciously self-effacing until she died at age 89 on the last day of 1997. Her prominent place in the world seemed to please but also to astonish her, as if the magnificent art collection, the building that houses it, the gifts she made and the opportunities she offered to others had just happened to her rather than because of her.