The Menil’s holdings of art from the Ancient World consist of Paleolithic artifacts and objects from the civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean, Egypt, and the Near East. Numbering about 600 objects, they span an impressive 20,000 years of artistic achievements. A fragment from an Upper Paleolithic implement made of bone and incised with images of reindeer attests to the early importance of precise representation. Dating to about 15,000–9,000 BCE, it is the oldest object in the collection. Marble figures and stoneware from the Cyclades Islands, bronze votive figurines from the eastern Mediterranean and Near East, and a significant group of ceramics from ancient Greece and Rome are particular strengths of the collection. A guardian funerary sculpture of a menacing, snarling winged lion and an exquisitely detailed amphora exemplify of Etruscan artistic sophistication during the 7th and 6th centuries BCE.
John and Dominique de Menil collected the majority of the museum’s ancient objects between the 1950s and 1970s as part of their art and education projects with the University of St. Thomas and Rice University. Dominique de Menil, who considered herself a “frustrated archaeologist,” was the primary patron for this part of the Menil’s permanent collection. She was fascinated with the way personal possessions and ceremonial objects intimately reveal our histories. Her passion for understanding the past through objects is reflected in the installation of art from the ancient Mediterranean, which she oversaw in 1987.
Representations of black Africans in antiquity form a significant leitmotif. This collecting focus developed in concert with The Image of the Black in Western Art, a research project and photographic archive initiated by Dominique and John de Menil in 1960. The de Menils’ frustration with the persistence of segregation in the southern United States ignited this interest and support for scholars like Frank Snowden (1911–2007) at Howard University and Ladislas Bugner in Paris. In her preface to the first published volume, Dominique de Menil wrote: “It was an impulse prompted by an intolerable situation: segregation as it still existed in spite of having been outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1954. Many works of art contradicted segregation.” The project, which in 1994 moved to Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, has generated ten large books in five volumes cataloguing the history of representations of people of African descent since Classical antiquity.