Double Vision

« Double vision » by William Middleton
The unerring eye of art world avatars Dominique and John de Menil

The long title of this biography is a tad misleading, suggesting parallel lives, when surely there was never a closer couple than Dominique and Jean ( John) de Menil ! What transpires is a most extraordinary partnership based on total trust ,curiosity, spirituality and a passion for all things new and exceptional. This long and complex biography proves that, although they were quite different characters from the outset, the love they had for each other and their common values were the basis of their wonderful collection and work : « Collectors without remorse » as John de Menil put it.


Nothing really predestined this couple to meet in the first place let alone end up in Houston, Southern Texas ! Dominique Schlumberger was born in 1908, the daughter of the immensely wealthy and successful industrialist Conrad Schlumberger, an Alsatian Protestant. This fact may not mean much to an Anglo-saxon reader nowadays but in France, Protestant families lived by the strict code of ascetism, economy, restraint and discretion that had always ruled this minority and these principles conditioned her whole life. Moreover, Dominique’s family ,who had been Protestant since the sixteenth century, were descended from François Guizot (1787—1874), a respected minister during the July Monarchy and a major political figure in France, so she was a member of the aristocracy of the Protestant faith .The Schlumberger family lived in grand simplicity between the rue Las Cases, in the faubourg Saint-Germain and the Château of Val-Richer in Normandy. The staunchly Catholic family of Jean de Ménil, born in 1904,also lived on rue Monsieur on the aristocratic faubourg Saint-Germain but were far less well-heeled though perhaps more intellectual and refined. Both families had been marked by the First World war but Jean de Menil was determined to make the most of life : « he had an almost physical revulsion for mediocrity, against the acceptance of a mediocre life, and above all , against mediocre intellectual life » wrote his future wife ; He was far from a stellar student at Sciences Po. on the rue Saint-Guillaume, but his military service firstly in Cambrai and then in Morocco had a real impact on his character and by 1930, Baron Jean Menu de Menil was an self- confident young investment banker. On his various travels, he had already acquired many objects and a real taste for collecting. In May 1930, Dominique and Jean met at a ball in Versailles : it was an immediate « coup de foudre ». This « mixed » marriage was complicated to negotiate between the families but in May 1931, they were married and spent an idyllic honeymoon in Morocco.

From the outset, they immersed themselves in Paris cultural life thanks to the decorator and artist Pierre Barbe and Father Marie-Alain Couturier, a Dominican monk who had befriended artists and edited the influencial publication « l’Art sacré ». They were introduced to contemporary artists like Matisse and Max Ernst and began buying what they liked . In 1938, Jean de Menil was persuaded to join Schlumberger, his wife’s family firm and in 1941, he got his wife and their growing family ( they would have five children) who had spent the beginning of the war in South West France, to join him in New York then Houston where Schlumberger Overseas was based .

John and Dominique de Ménil began collecting art intensively in the 1940s,through dealers such as Alexandre Iolas, beginning with a purchase of Paul Cézanne. Father Marie-Alain Couturier, who had spent the war in the States, introduced the de Ménils to the work of artists in galleries and museums in New York, they too were fascinated by the influence of spirituality on modern art . They ultimately amassed more than 17,000 paintings, sculptures, decorative objects, prints, drawings, photographs, and rare books.with a particular interest in modern European art, a core strength of the collection being the many Cubist, Surrealist, and other Modernist works the 1960s ,the de Menils had gravitated toward the major American post-war movements of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, and Minimalism. Over the years the family befriended the artists whose work theycollected : Victor Brauner, Max Ernst, Jasper Johns, Yves Klein, René Magritte, Robert Rauschenberg, Dorothea Tanning, and Andy Warhol were all close personal friends.

After moving to Houston, the de Menils threw themselves into becaming key figures in the city's developing cultural life as advocates of modern art and architecture, recognizing that the city lacked a substantial arts community. Responding to a friend's observation that Houston was a cultural desert, John de Menil is said to have quipped, "It’s in the desert that miracles happen." During his lifetime he was a member of the board of directors or a trustee of the Amon Carter Museum, the American Federation of Arts Committee, the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the Institute of International Education, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Museum of Primitive Art. He also served on the International Council and board of trustees of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1962, Jean de Menil became an American citizen and anglicized his name to John. He felt a strong sense of freedom in Texas and loved the amount of sheer opportunity that he found in the States.

His business went from strength to strength which allowed them to pursue their artistic pursuits and their philanthropy knew no limits : this biography can hardly get to grips with all their ambitious and generous projects:they founded the Art Department at the University of St. Thomas in 1959, they established the university's Media Center in 1967.,they brought many renowned artists and art historians to Houston, including Marcel Duchamp, Roberto Matta, and James Johnson Sweeney, whom they convinced to serve as museum director for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston from 1961 to 1967 and in 1969 the de Menils moved the Art Department—including the art history faculty—and Media Center to Rice University, where they founded the Institute for the Arts to manage the exhibition program at Rice Museum where they organized ground-breaking exhibitions using their considerable influence to secure wonderful loans .

John and Dominique de Menil were, of course, both vocal champions of human rights worldwide and involved in a very personal way, culminating in their non-denominational Rothko Chapel which was consecrated in 1971. Plans to create a museum to house and exhibit John and Dominique de Menil's collection began as early as 1972, when they asked the architect Louis I. Kahn supply designs for a building in the Montrose neighborhood of Houston, near the Rothko Chapel. Kahn produced some preliminary drawings, but the project was suspended in 1973 after John de Menil died of cancer.

Dominique soldiered on alone for twenty four years, choosing the Avant-garde young architect Renzo Piano to design the museum which was dedicated in 1987. She was always a strong woman with a hands-on approach to all the projects she took on but seemed to acquire even more energy and enthusiasm after John’s death, as if time was of the essence and she was a woman with a definite mission that she had to complete before her death in December 1997...

Dominique summed it all up « All we can do is expose people to the art we believe in ourselves, the art we love and let them absorb what they are ready to absoeb. We can do no more than plant a seed and hope it will germinate. Let the plant grow and blossom ».

William Middleton has managed the practically impossible task of condensing these two lives into a dense 750 page book which sometimes gets slightly bogged down in facts, giving it a slightly breathless feel and the reader feels that there were certainly not enough hours in the day for the de Ménils ! Relaxing was certainly not a word in their dictionary ! 

The Paris Insider Newsletter

THE PARIS INSIDER family of weekly newsletters,Including THE PARIS INSIDER (Tuesday,) THE PARIS READERS CIRCLE (Wednesday,) THE PARIS WEEKENDER (Thursday,) and THE PARIS INTERVIEW (Friday) offer freshly written reviews about restaurants, museums, books, events, showings and what's on in Paris. Arriving at 9:15 AM Pacific Time you'll receive all of this plus tips on excursions to the surrounding regions from Champagne to the Loire Valley and much more. Thank you for subscribing.