Photo: Paul S. Howell, HC Staff
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In 1945, when John de Menil returned from a business trip with a Cezanne watercolor in hand, his wife was skeptical.
Dominique de Menil, known for pinching pennies, famously said that $300 was a lot for a canvas with so little paint. Then she relented. A converted Catholic, she focused on the connection between art and faith.
"Through art," she once wrote, "God constantly clears a path to our hearts."
By the time of her death in 1997, Dominique de Menil was the queen of Houston's modern art scene, a major player on the global art stage and a champion for civil rights and social justice.
That was her public face. Privately, she was a woman displaced by the Nazis and World War II, a working mother who juggled her love for her five children and her passion for art, an introvert who surrounded herself with friends so protective they continue to shield her though she's been dead since 1997.
De Menil was born in France. She was the daughter of physicist Conrad Schlumberger, who developed technology to find and chart underground oil deposits and went on to co-found the world's largest oil field services company, Schlumberger Ltd. Before the family was swimming in francs, Dominique earned advanced degrees in math and physics from the Sorbonne.
1908Dominique de Menil, daughter of Conrad Schlumberger and his wife, Louise Delpech, is born in Paris.
1931 She and John de Menil marry after a whirlwind romance.
1944The de Menils settle permanently in Houston.
1945John de Menil buys a Cezanne watercolor, starting what will become a massive art collection.
1971The de Menils dedicate the Rothko Chapel, a chapel that also functions as a work of art and a showcase for the paintings of Mark Rothko.
1973John de Menil dies of cancer.
1987The Menil Collection, one of the finest privately owned museums in the world, opens to the public.
1995Dominique de Menil opens the Cy Twombly Gallery, a collection of more than 200 images of the artist's works.
1996De Menil's building campaign continues with the Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall.
1997The last building project she will personally oversee is the Byzantine Fresco Chapel. De Menil, 89, dies on the last day of the year.
2017The Menil Drawing Institute, a freestanding building dedicated to the exhibition, study and storage of modern and contemporary drawing, is scheduled to open.
Nelson Mandela and Dominique de Menil get ready for a news conference at the Rothko Chapel in December 1991.
Dominique de Menil and former President Jimmy Carter shared a passionate interest in social justice and human rights.
President Ronald Reagan presents Dominique de Menil with the National Medal of the Arts award at the White House in 1986.
The year was 1930 - she was only 22 - when she met John at a dance party at Versailles. Their attraction was instant; they talked all night.
A year later, they married, with plans to start a family and pursue their burgeoning interests in Paris. As their family began to grow, she managed the children and he took an executive position with Schlumberger in 1936.
Then World War II intruded, and the family had to run from Nazi-occupied Paris. John fled first. Dominique packed up and left next, bringing with her their three young children and multiple family members.
The privileged couple learned what it meant to be immigrants, to speak with accents, to feel once or twice removed. Still, they felt welcome in Houston, headquarters for Schlumberger's North American operations.
"My father liked Texas and the entrepreneurial, can-do spirit," said Francois de Menil, the couple's fourth child but the first to be born on American soil. "I think they expanded the cultural scene here. Houston was not Paris. So what they did - they created an environment that was wonderful, that they liked, that was familiar."
The de Menils became students and fans of modern art in the mid-1940s, when John reunited with a French friend, Father Marie-Alain Couturier. Couturier took John de Menil to New York galleries that impressed and amazed them both. By the time the tour was over, the young businessman had purchased the Cezanne watercolor. It was the beginning of the couple's lifelong commitment to art and its sacred, universal truths.
"They sought out art that had spiritual depth," says architectural historian Stephen Fox. "They were rarely conventionally religious, yet they had a profound spiritual commitment and implied ethics that were different."
As the de Menils spent increasing amounts on the works of Magritte, Max Ernst, Picasso, and other artists from different centuries, Dominique continued to wrestle with the notion that "purchasing art was a slightly bad action, too pleasure seeking, too hedonistic."
Pamela Smart, quoting de Menil in her book, "Sacred Modern," shows how she resolved her internal debate: "Well, man does not live by bread alone and there is redeeming value in art," de Menil wrote. "Look at great artists. They can be difficult, dissolute but they are never base and in their quest for perfection they come closer to eternal truths than pious goody goodies. So we are collectors without remorse."
The de Menils knew they had a unique opportunity to shape the art community in Houston. They wielded their power and influence at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, what is now the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the University of St. Thomas and Rice University.
While all those institutions were enriched and sometimes transformed by de Menil gifts, the couple wanted full control - something they could attain only by developing their own exhibition spaces and museums.
In 1971, they dedicated their Rothko Chapel, filled with 14 abstract paintings by the artist Mark Rothko.
The de Menils were starting their next project - the museum that would provide a home for their vast art collection - when John died of cancer. Dominique suffered another blow when the architect they'd hired for the monumental task, Louis Kahn, died in 1974, just a year later.
It took time and encouragement from friends, but in 1980 she hired architect Renzo Piano to design what would be called The Menil Collection.
The Menil opened with great fanfare in 1987 and became one of the finest privately owned museums in the world. Eight years later, de Menil's Cy Twombly Gallery opened. Next was the Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall in 1996. The Byzantine Fresco Chapel opened in 1997. Another jewel in the crown, the Menil Drawing Institute, is slated to open next year.
All these buildings are located within Menil Park and the surrounding campus, affectionately dubbed "Do-ville."
The artists and art lovers who knew de Menil hold tight to their memories.
"She had very strong opinions on things," said Fredericka Hunter, owner of Texas Gallery and a former student and employee. "For example, she built her house on San Felipe facing the wrong direction. What was considered the entry was actually on the service road. She was unpretentious and hilarious sometimes, but she was also very insistent. She never explained anything. You were supposed to keep up."
"She was like my fairy godmother," says Geraldine Aramanda, who works at The Menil Collection and has spent her adult life helping de Menil and protecting her legacy. "But if employees did something stupid, she'd let them know. She hated it when people said, 'Hi Dominique, how are you?' She was not available for small talk, at least not during the day."
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