The Menils: The French Art Barons of Texas

Does anyone remember Dominique and John de Menil? This French philanthropist couple arrived in the United States in 1941 and founded the Menil Collection in Houston – one of the biggest private museums in America – and the Rothko Chapel, located in the same Texan city. Yet few people know of this determined pair who worked ceaselessly to make art more accessible in the 20th century.
John and Dominique de Menil in Houston, 1965. © Hickey-Robertson, courtesy of the Menil Collection

One spring day in 2021, people were strolling through the streets of the Montrose neighborhood of Houston against the backdrop of gray bungalows and leafy oak trees. As well as the many green spaces, they were able to admire the dozen modern sculptures by Ellsworth Kelly, Jim Love, and Barnett Newman around the area. While visiting this thirty-acre campus, most rush to the Menil Collection, a long, single-story building, also in gray, that has housed some 17,000 works of art since 1987, and its four adjoining pavilions. Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, the museum integrates perfectly into its surroundings and, in line with its founders’ wishes, appears modest on the outside and vast and impressive on the inside.

There is no entrance fee. Once visitors enter the main building bathed in natural light, the clouds sometimes move, draping the space in a veil of delicate shadow. The room then brightens to reveal a series of canvases featuring vibrant, monochrome stripes. Through this exhibition, the Menil Collection is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Rothko Chapel, built one street away by the Menils in collaboration with Mark Rothko, the leading American abstract artist of the post-war period. “They bought those paintings right after they were made in 1957 and brought them here,” says Natalie Dupêcher, a curator at the museum, standing in front of Plum and Brown (1956) and The Green Stripe (1955). A little further along towards the contemporary and modern art galleries, René Magritte’s Surrealist oil painting, Empire of Light, offers visitors a taste of the biggest collection of the Belgian artist’s work outside his native country. There is even a photo of the painter wearing a cowboy hat while at a rodeo in Texas!

The Menil Collection, designed by architect Renzo Piano, opened in Houston in 1987. © Kevin Keim
Mark Rothko’s paintings Plum and Brown (left) and The Green Stripe, on view at the Menil Collection. © The Menil Collection
Inside the Rothko Chapel, inaugurated in 1971. © Elizabeth Felicella

The visit continues with modern European artists such as Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Miró, Fernand Léger, and Max Ernst, followed by a large collection of post-war American figures including Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly – who lent his name to one of the pavilions at the Menil Collection – and Niki de Saint Phalle, who is the focus of a major exhibition currently showing until January 23, 2022. The collection amassed over six decades by John and Dominique de Menil started as a private enterprise and was then pursued through the Menil Foundation from 1954 onwards. Today it spans a huge time period, from the Paleolithic era to the 20th century, and boasts works from Europe, the Americas, Africa, and the Pacific Islands, along with a library of archives and research and a whole pavilion devoted to drawings.

There was no list of specifications to follow for new acquisitions after Dominique de Menil died in 1997 (John passed away in 1973), but rather a mindset to embody. “It is not encyclopedic knowledge that counts,” she used to say. “What counts is the intensity of the quest, the thirst of the soul, the curiosity of the mind, and the enjoyment of the eye.” And a direct experience with the art, which is admired at eye level without any explanatory plaques. “They wanted to bring people to art,” says Rebecca Rabinow, the museum director since 2016, who used to work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “Even today the mission of the museum, our belief, is that art is an intrinsic part of the human experience. We all need art in our lives, and we need to remove anything that keeps us from accessing it. So entrance is free, there are no stairs to climb,” and the museum has extended opening hours. “There are no barriers to accessing the art.”

From Paris to the New World

The Menils’ journey into the art world was not immediate. Jean Menu de Ménil, a banker from an old Catholic family, married inventor and industrialist Conrad Schlumberger’s daughter Dominique in 1931. During the war, he was made operations director at the booming Schlumberger oilfield services company in Houston. He left France for America in 1940 and was joined the following year by Dominique and their first three children. In New York, the couple met artists and intellectuals who had also been forced to flee the war, and reunited with Marie-Alain Couturier, a Dominican friar and sacred art expert whom they had met ten years earlier in Paris. On his advice, Jean and Dominique began scouring galleries and made their first acquisitions, including a Cézanne.

John and Dominique de Menil on their wedding day, 1931. Courtesy of the Menil Collection
Max Ernst, Portrait of Dominique, ca. 1932. © Artists Rights Society, New York/ADAGP, Paris, courtesy of the Menil Collection

Their initially somewhat conventional artistic perspective changed and matured. This evolution was illustrated by one of Dominique’s favorite anecdotes about their late rediscovery of a forgotten portrait of her, painted by German Surrealist Max Ernst in the 1930s: “We saw it and then we screamed, because by that time our eyes were open.” The power of artistic modernism, viewed as a uniting force, resonated with the intense spiritual journey pursued by this devout couple. Their youngest son François de Menil, 76, an architect who splits his time between New York and Houston, said in an interview with France-Amérique that this newfound awareness after the war most likely set the couple on a new course: “What they had initially not cared for, they started to appreciate. And that’s the experience that they tried to share with others.”

The Gulf of Mexico was home to the headquarters of the Schlumberger Group’s oilfield business that made the Menils so wealthy, and offered the couple an incredible land of opportunity. “The New World was a blank page and they created their own world there,” says François de Menil. “They went through a transformation, from being bourgeois, middle-class, educated folks, to having a really sophisticated, more avant-garde kind of mindset.” If they had never crossed the Atlantic and settled in Texas, his parents “may not have gone to where they eventually got.” In 1962, as a sign of the family’s integration, Jean de Ménil officially became John de Menil.

Two Apostles of Accessible Art

During the first years, the couple’s desire to make art more accessible was reflected in the transformation of their art collection into a “teaching collection.” They also increased their support for local cultural institutions by attracting leading names from the artistic circuit, such as the genius art specialist Jermayne MacAgy and the former Guggenheim Museum curator James John Sweeney. They helped the University of St. Thomas open an art history department and later collaborated with Rice University. They welcomed René Magritte, Max Ernst, Andy Warhol, Le Corbusier, and filmmakers Antonioni and Godard to Houston, and called on the most esteemed architects to create a modernist vision of residential, academic, and cultural architecture in the rapidly growing city.

Dominique de Menil and René Magritte (seated), at a rodeo outside Houston, 1965. © Adelaide de Menil, courtesy of the Menil Collection
In 1971 in a Houston theater, the Menils organized one of the first racially mixed exhibitions of contemporary artists in a Houston theater. Courtesy of the Menil Collection
John de Menil (left), Dominique (right), Andy Warhol, and their friends at the 1967 International and Universal Exposition in Montreal. © Balthazar Korab, courtesy of the Menil Collection

They also saw art as a weapon against the violence of segregation in the South during the Jim Crow era. Having been shocked by a train ride with exclusively white passengers in 1960, Dominique de Menil launched a highly ambitious research and publication project, The Image of the Black in Western Art. This project, now pursued by Harvard University, has brought together 26,000 images and produced a dozen books on the subject. Meanwhile, John de Menil worked to defend civil rights by supporting Black politicians (including future Democratic congressman Mickey Leland) and educational charities. In 1971, the Menils hosted one of the first racially mixed exhibitions of contemporary artists, which went down in history as the De Luxe Show.

Beyond these achievements, what defines for many these prolific French-American collectors’ legacy is a humanist philosophy according to which high-quality art is a powerful agent for spiritual change. It stimulates intellect, perspective, and the soul, leading to a social, fraternal engagement, and a universal worldview. It is, in a word, sacred.

Article published in the September 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.