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Texas Originals

Dominique and John de Menil: Two Iconic Collectors And Curators Of Art

They were two iconic collectors and curators of art. The Menil Collection remains true to their vision of art as a spiritual pursuit.



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John and Dominique de Menil at the University of St. Thomas, Houston, 1965
John and Dominique de Menil at the University of St. Thomas, Houston, 1965

DOMINIQUE (1908–1997) AND JOHN de MENIL (1904–1973)

Houston is the home of world-class art. That's due in part to the generosity of Dominique and John de Menil: a French couple who left their Nazi-occupied homeland in 1941, ultimately settling in Houston.

As John rose to prominence in the oil industry, he and Dominique developed a passion for collecting art. Inspired by their friendship with Father Marie-Alain Couturier, a Dominican priest who championed a new religious art, the de Menils became fascinated with modern art that served a transcendent purpose.

Recognizing spiritual and artistic links between contemporary art and the traditions that preceded it, the couple's enthusiasm soon extended to the arts of tribal cultures, and later to antiquities and medieval and Byzantine art.

Houston institutions benefited immensely from their patronage. The city also boasts the de Menils' Rothko Chapel, a non-denominational chapel with works by mid-century abstract painter Mark Rothko.

Dominique de Menil with gallery model, Houston, 1973. Photo from Menil Archives, The Menil Collection, Houston.
Photo by John Lee Simons.

But the couple’s greatest contribution to Houston is their own museum, the Menil Collection, which opened in 1987, fourteen years after John’s passing. Dominique guided the museum—watching her lovingly curated collection become a world-renowned institution—until her death in 1997.

Housed in buildings designed by famed architect Renzo Piano, the museum is celebrated for its modern and contemporary masterpieces and holds one of the world's foremost collections of Surrealist art. Just as important, the museum remains true to the Menils' vision of art as a spiritual pursuit.


For More about Dominique and John de Menil

The Menil Collection, located in central Houston, is free and open to the public.

John and Dominique de Menil were also vocal champions of human rights worldwide, focusing their actions on civil rights in particular. In 1960 they launched the ambitious scholarly research project The Image of the Black in Western Art, directed by art historian Ladislas Bugner.

Spanning nearly 5,000 years and documenting virtually all forms of media, the unprecedented research project was devoted to the systematic investigation of how people of African descent have been perceived and represented in art. The project resulted in a four-volume series of generously illustrated books, The Image of the Black in Western Art.

In the coming years, Harvard University Press and the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research to present new editions of the original books, as well as an additional five volumes.


The Menil Collection
Image of the Menil Collection from Wikipedia. Photo by Argos’Dad

Selected Bibliography

Brennan, Marcia, Alfred Pacquement, and Ann Temkin. A Modern Patronage: de Menil Gifts to American and European Museums. Houston, Tex.: Menil Foundation; New Haven, Conn.; London: Yale University Press, 2007.
Browning, Dominique. “What I Admire I Must Possess.” Texas Monthly, April 1983.
Couturier, Marie-Alain. Sacred Art. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1989.
The First Show: Painting and Sculpture from Eight Collections, 1940-1980. Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art; New York: in association with Arts Publisher, Inc., 1983.
Helfenstein, Josef, and Laureen Schipsi, ed. Art and Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de Menil. Houston: The Menil Collection, 2010.
Holmes, Ann. “Dominique de Menil: From Jeune Fille to Renaissance Woman.” Art News 82 (January 1983).
Menil, Dominique de. “The Rothko Chapel.” Art Journal 30 (Spring, 1971).
The Menil Collection: A Selection from the Paleolithic to the Modern Era. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997.
Smart, Pamela. Sacred Modern: Faith, Activism, and Aesthetics in the Menil Collection. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011.
Van Dyke, Kristina, ed. African Art from the Menil Collection. Houston: Menil Collection; New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008.

This originally aired September 14, 2012.