The sweltering summer afternoon of June 4, 1987, was the official opening of the Menil Collection, in Houston, and 79-year-old Dominique de Menil stood in front of her new museum. The building, the first in the United States designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano, was a bold, graceful two-story structure of white steel, clear glass, and gray cypress siding with a pristine white interior, glistening black wood floors, and walls of windows that opened onto lush tropical gardens. Inside was one of the largest and most important private collections assembled in the 20th century, comprising more than 10,000 objects: Paleolithic bone carvings, Cycladic idols, Byzantine relics, African totems, and Oceanic effigies, as well as modernist masterpieces from Cézanne, Picasso, Braque, Magritte, Ernst, Calder, Rothko, Rauschenberg, Warhol, and Johns.
As Dominique stepped to the lectern at the entrance of the building, she was determined to focus on what really mattered. “Artists are economically useless, and yet they are indispensable,” she said with conviction. “A political regime where artists are persecuted is stifling, unbearable. We need painters, poets, musicians, filmmakers, philosophers, dancers, and saints.” And at a moment when she might have been expected to make a case for the kind of enlightened patronage that she and her husband, John, practiced, she went the other way. It was a small but significant sleight of hand. “The gifted artists are the great benefactors of the world,” Dominique announced. “Life flows from their souls, from their hearts, from their fingers. They invite us to celebrate life and to meditate on the mystery of the world. They bring us back to the essential.”
At the time of the museum opening, Dominique had been a collector for half a century, and had worked in the art world for more than two decades, curating and installing a series of nationally and internationally significant exhibitions. She was charismatic, intellectually curious, and remarkably generous; yet she could also be severe, even imperious. Many present that afternoon were aware of the contradictions. “She was turned toward others in a way that was quite moving, but she was also extremely determined, with a personality that you could not make deviate from her intentions,” said Alfred Pacquement, the director of the National Museum of Modern Art at the Centre Pompidou. “There was a mix of generosity and determination to the point of almost ignoring advice other people might have. It was a mix that was quite striking, and it was all lit up by what was, without a doubt, an enormous intelligence.”
How this complex, sophisticated Parisian came to live in South Texas had to do with her father, Conrad Schlumberger. When Dominique was still a young girl, he had the idea that electricity could be used to chart what lay below the ground, and Schlumberger Limited, the company that he formed along with his brother Marcel, soon became the largest oil services firm in the world (as of 2016, Schlumberger had approximately 100,000 employees, working in more than 85 countries, with an annual revenue of $27.8 billion). Dominique and John moved to Houston during World War II because it was the U.S. headquarters for Schlumberger. A key figure in the development of the firm, John was the first to oversee issues relating to finance, management, personnel, and marketing, putting the systems in place that allowed Schlumberger to become a huge multinational conglomerate. He even coined the company slogan: “Wherever the drill goes, Schlumberger goes.” By the time he retired in 1969, at the age of 65, he had become chairman of the board.
The day the museum opened, Dominique told many that her husband was the one who really had a passion for art, and she recalled how much he enjoyed the company of artists. When artists visited them in Texas, John knew how to create a sense of Western adventure. He took the surrealist painter René Magritte out to buy an authentic cowboy hat and then, with Dominique, to the rodeo in Simonton, a small town west of Houston. He made sure Andy Warhol and his entourage were offered shopping sprees at Stelzig Saddlery Company, a historic Western store filled with Lee Riders, Nocona boots, and chaps. Once everyone was properly rigged, they were taken for dinner at the Stables, an old-school steak house on Main Street.
“On collecting, they were absolutely a partnership,” said Walter Hopps, the founding director of the Menil Collection, of the relationship between Dominique and John. “And they had their own personal favorites. Dominique always said, ‘John loved Picasso more than I did. And I loved Braque more than Picasso.’ Braque had a warmth and a humanity, and Picasso had a bold, kind of macho swagger.” Although they almost always made decisions together about works of art, John had more adventurous taste. “He really gave her confidence, but he was the mover and doer,” according to their daughter Christophe. “He supported and encouraged her.”
In October 1971, about a year and a half before his death, John sent Dominique a note about the Rothko Chapel, the sacred structure they had completed that year, containing 14 massive, dark panels by Mark Rothko. To his wife of 40 years, he signed off: “Copied in the car, while waiting for the traffic to move, in intense communion with you.” In October 1996, a little more than a year before her death, Dominique gave a work to the Menil Collection in honor of her husband. It was a watercolor by Magritte called Les Fanatiques, a mysterious picture set in a barren, surrealist landscape. It showed a big, dark bird circling above a bright orange bonfire. The creature appeared to be fearless, flying just above flames that licked at the sky. Dominique inscribed the piece, in the shaky handwriting of an 87-year-old, “I give this gouache by Magritte in memory of John de Menil, who dared…and did.”
It was an extraordinary relationship that began one evening in May 1930, at a ball at a grand house in Versailles. That was the night that the Baron Jean Marie Joseph Menu de Ménil—to give him his full, French name and title—an ambitious 26-year-old junior executive at a leading Paris investment bank, the Banque de l’Union Parisienne, met Dominique Schlumberger, a self-possessed, serious 22-year-old who had recently graduated from the Sorbonne.
At only five feet six inches, Jean was a small man who cut a forceful figure. With his vivid brown eyes, protruding ears, high forehead, and thick, dark hair, he was just this side of handsome. Money was tight, because the de Menils were financially ruined around the time he was born, so he still lived at the family apartment, in the 15th arrondissement, on the less-than-fashionable rue de Vaugirard. Yet he was a man on a mission: By sheer force of will, he pulled himself out of the darkness of his family life. In fact, one close friend called him Jean the Comet.
The young baron was a committed Anglophile who favored such signs of connoisseurship as tweed jackets, well-tailored suits à l’anglaise, and the perfect pair of round tortoiseshell glasses. He kept his hair closely cropped and neatly combed, and had his slacks ironed every evening. As soon as he started making his own money, Jean didn’t hesitate to spend it. He had his dress shirts custom-made at Lanvin and was a habitué of La Coupole, the Left Bank brasserie that attracted everyone from Ernest Hemingway to André Breton and Man Ray. Jean’s favorite dish at La Coupole was truffe sous la cendre, a large chunk of truffle doused in champagne, wrapped in parchment paper, roasted under hot coals, and served with melted butter.
Dominique Schlumberger was on a different sort of quest. Familial grandeur was not a concern, for she was part of a great industrial and intellectual dynasty. She also lived with her parents, though in a stately 19th-century building on the rue Las Cases, in the center of the aristocratic Faubourg Saint-Germain. Dominique had bright blue eyes, high cheekbones, and an engaging smile. Her dark-blonde hair was kept shoulder-length and pulled back. Her inner strength had been stimulated by growing up in a matriarchal family, with a history of strong women. Although she was a favorite of both parents, it was said in the family that Dominique was “the son her father never had,” or simply “Daddy’s little boy.”
That spring, in 1930, she had just begun working for the firm founded by her father. It was still a young organization, with about 95 employees. Young Dominique and her father walked from their home across the Esplanade des Invalides to the offices on the rue Saint-Dominique. There she edited Proselec, the confidential publication sent to teams of Schlumberger engineers scattered around the globe. She often slipped into inscrutability, talking of logarithmic tables. The conversation could be so dense, and her vocabulary so expansive, that even her older sister often found her difficult to understand.
However, the 22-year-old Dominique was interested in more than science. She was fascinated by history and literature and film. In fact, she had just returned from Berlin, where she had been an intern on the set of the The Blue Angel, with Marlene Dietrich. And she had long been interested in metaphysics. She studied philosophy at the Sorbonne with Louis Lavelle, one of the most important French Christian philosophers of the 20th century. In one of her earliest letters to Jean, her future husband, she wrote: “There is a relentless logic and a mystical faith that emanate from the depth of my heart.” Whether it was through science or art or faith, Dominique Schlumberger was looking for meaning.
After the couple’s early years of marriage, spent in Paris between the wars, one of the most exciting eras in art history, Dominique and John (he adopted the English version of his name) emigrated to the United States during World War II, arriving together in New York in June 1941. One of the first encounters they had in the city was with a remarkable Dominican priest Dominique had known in Paris, Father Marie-Alain Couturier. Father Couturier, who would go on to commission the Chapel of the Rosary (also known as the Matisse Chapel), in Vence, and Le Corbusier’s Chapel of Notre Dame du Haut, at Ronchamp, initiated the de Menils into the mysteries of modern art. One important lesson took place on their first visit to the Museum of Modern Art. “We were just beginning to appreciate Cubist paintings,” Dominique recalled. “In front of a Mondrian, I said, ‘Now this is going too far. You cannot pretend that those few rectangles are beautiful.’ ” Father Couturier insisted, “You may not like it, but it is serious, and you have to take it seriously.”
Within a decade, the de Menils acquired their first Mondrian painting, and the artist soon became important to the couple. Once, Dominique was asked which work she would try to save if their house was on fire. She decided on a very specific Mondrian she and John owned, Study for a Composition, a small pencil sketch on an envelope for a future painting. For her, the tiny Mondrian was a treasure of reflection and knowledge, of simplicity and beauty.
In April 1945, just as the war was winding down, John was in New York visiting galleries with Father Couturier. He telephoned Dominique to tell her about some works that he had fallen in love with, particularly a watercolor by Cézanne, called Montagne, that he had seen at the Valentine Gallery. It was a spare, poetic work, with a sweeping outline of Mont de Cengle, part of the same chain as Mont Sainte-Victoire, in Provence. John carried the watercolor back to Houston. “It seemed like an awful lot of money for such a small amount of paint,” Dominique said at the time, but she came to appreciate the significance of the work. “It’s a lovely little gouache,” she explained much later. “At first, I didn’t fall particularly in love, but now I understand. It’s a miracle of tension—the void means as much as the paint—and nobody is able to find that tension.” In fact, Dominique used her delayed reaction to the Cézanne piece as an example. She might have been slow off the mark, but she learned. “It shows you can be educated.”
Father Couturier also helped the de Menils understand—and it was a realization that was essential to their development as collectors and patrons—that their multiplying fortune meant they had a responsibility to give back. Collecting was not something frivolous, nor was it an egotistical pursuit, meant only for their own enjoyment or to be used as a monument to themselves. Instead, Father Couturier argued, they should be acquiring great works and allowing them to enrich the lives of others, just as they themselves had been enriched in the galleries and museums of New York. “Father Couturier was an ascetic, but he certainly was not a puritan,” Dominique recalled. “He cured me of my puritanical block against collecting. He made it an obligation for us—a moral obligation—to buy good paintings, if and when we could afford it.”
Throughout their lives, the de Menils had a vast field of action. Since moving to the United States, they were involved with artists, museums, collectors, and scholars across the globe. Whether it was having lunch with Braque at his retreat on the coast in Normandy, touring the Betty Parsons Gallery with the Columbia University historian Meyer Schapiro, or being given a personal tour of the West Texas town of Marfa by Donald Judd, they were engaged with, and learning about, art at the highest level.
The de Menils always maintained a home in New York; since 1961, it was a town house at 111 East 73rd Street. They also had an apartment on the Left Bank in Paris, in the building on the rue Las Cases where Dominique was born, and a country estate in Pontpoint, an hour north of the city. Their lives in Paris and New York were remarkably full. One workday for Dominique, for example, a Friday in November 1964, when she was at their Manhattan town house, began at 7 a.m. with a phone conversation about upcoming exhibitions with the director of the Guimet Museum, in Paris. Midmorning, she had two calls: to a reporter at Newsweek who was planning to do a story on the arts scene in Houston, and to Diana Vreeland at Vogue, who was organizing a feature on the de Menils’ house in Houston, with its modernist architecture by Philip Johnson and its voluptuous interiors by Charles James. At midday, Dominique hosted a lunch at home, tête-à-tête, with Marlene Dietrich. Then, at 2:30 p.m., she went to Mark Rothko’s 69th Street studio to meet with the artist about his paintings for the chapel. The next day, she took the Schlumberger jet to Houston.
In June 1967, a fundraiser the de Menils hosted for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, at Philip Johnson’s Glass House, in New Canaan, Connecticut, turned into a major happening. For Dominique and John and about two dozen guests, the festivities began in the afternoon at home with champagne and caviar. Included were a few of the couple’s young friends and protégés, including Helen Winkler, who would go on to be one of the founders of the Dia Art Foundation, and an elegant, mischievous former art history student, Frederick Hughes. Other guests were Andy Warhol and some of the leading members of his Factory crowd such as Viva, Paul Morrissey, and Gerard Malanga. The de Menils rented station wagons to drive everyone up to Connecticut.
At the Glass House, the performance featured music by Cunningham’s partner and collaborator, John Cage, and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg; the artistic director was Jasper Johns. Oversize white balloons hovered above the grounds, and a large white platform constructed between the house and the pool was used as a stage. New York’s cultural leaders, in short day dresses or jackets and ties, had cocktails alfresco as they took in the architect’s recently completed museum. The Cunningham piece, titled Museum Event #5, began when eight members of the company spilled out of three jalopies that had been pulled onto the lawn. The Cage score was played on viola, gongs, radio, and the old cars—meaning the sounds of engines, windshield wipers, and slamming doors. Then, after the bottles of Beaujolais and boxed dinners from the Brasserie of the Four Seasons were consumed, came a second performance, this time by the Velvet Underground, for which Lou Reed, John Cale, and Nico turned the stage into a crowded, kinetic dance floor. “Balloons. Ballet. Boogaloo,” was how the evening was described by Vogue.
If it was recognition the de Menils sought, they could have stepped up their activities in the established capitals. Instead, they made a conscious decision to focus on Texas, since Houston was the source of their wealth. In the 1960s, when John was on the board of the Museum of Modern Art, he explained that their participation in New York would be limited. “As you know, our first responsibility is in Houston,” he wrote to Dorothy Miller, the first MoMA curator. “And that is where our efforts must be concentrated, because here we are almost alone.”
Two decades later, the opening of the Menil Collection attracted the most high-voltage crowd ever assembled in Texas. Dominique and her team organized a great schedule of events for the long weekend, from a black-tie dinner for 700 held in a tent constructed across from the museum to the public grand opening, when more than 8,000 people poured into the museum as a bevy of local artists played popular, jazz, classical, and gospel music. Spirited marching bands and dancers performed throughout the grounds. Dominique and John had managed to show how a young American city, with only the thinnest cultural or intellectual history, could be pulled up to international standards.
Years before, the couple had a hunch, one that was proved to be correct. A friend in New York, dubious about the de Menils’ commitment to Texas, dismissed Houston as a cultural desert. John’s reply: “It’s in the desert that miracles happen.”
An exclusive excerpt from Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil by William Middleton.
Related: The Surreal World