John and Dominique de Menil

Theirs is the story of Houston: Emigrated from France, led Schlumberger, made great art accessible to the region, fought for civil rights, and left awe-inspiring public spaces dedicated to spirit, compassion, and peace nestled into a living Houston neighborhood.

Dominique Isaline Zelia Henriette Clarisse Schlumberger was a French heiress with fortunes in the textile and oil-field markets. Jean Marie Joseph Menu de Menil, the son of the Baron Georges Auguste, was a Catholic banker who came from a French military family.

John and Dominique met at a dance in Versailles in 1930, married shortly after, and began a partnership that would amass one of the greatest private art collections in the world, while being civil rights activists, spiritual leaders, philanthropists, and founders of a great art and spiritual complex in Houston.

Upon returning from their Moroccan honeymoon, they commissioned Max Ernst to paint Dominique’s portrait and rode on horseback down the Bois de Boulogne. Eventually, they had five children, Christophe, Adelaide, Georges, Francois, and Philippa.

But when the Nazis invaded France, Dominique left Paris for Cuba with her children, and John soon followed. They relocated to Houston where her family’s company, Schlumberger, had their headquarters.

John became president of Schlumberger Overseas (Middle and Far East) and Schlumberger Surenco (Latin America).

John and Dominique were passionate collectors of art, beginning with a purchase of a painting by Cezanne. Eventually, they collected 17,000 paintings, sculptures, decorative objects, prints, drawings, photographs, and rare books.

The de Menils’ Catholic faith, especially their interest in Father Yves Marie Joseph Congar’s teachings on ecumenism, would become crucial in the development of their collecting ethos in the coming decades. With the guidance of the Dominican priest Marie-Alain Couturier, who introduced the de Menils to the work of artists in galleries and museums in New York, they became interested in the intersection of modern art and spirituality.

In 1954, they established the non-profit Menil Foundation to promote education and understanding of art, architecture, and philosophy. They commissioned Philip Johnson to design the master plan for the University of St. Thomas campus, and went on to found an exceptional art department there.

As passionate champions of human and civil rights, John and Dominique provided funding for Houston non-profit organizations such as SHAPE (Self-Help for African People Through Education). The de Menils organized exhibitions that promoted human and civil rights, including “The De Luxe Show,” a 1971 exhibition of contemporary art held in Houston’s Fifth Ward. Civil rights activist and later US Congressman Mickey Leland coordinated this art show, one of the first racially integrated art shows in the United States.

The de Menils offered Barnett Newman’s sculpture Broken Obelisk as a gift to the City of Houston in 1969, with the stipulation that it be dedicated to the recently assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The city refused the gift, so the de Menils purchased the sculpture and placed it in front of their newly completed Rothko Chapel in 1971.

The de Menils established the octagonal Rothko Chapel in Houston to be an ecumenical chapel open to all. It was dedicated to meditation and peace, and 14 large dark panels by the abstract artist Mark Rothko enrobe the walls. There, Dominique de Menil called together leaders of world religions, such as the Dalai Lama, for week-long roundtable events called colloquia.

In 1969 the de Menils founded the Institute of the Arts at Rice University, expanded Rice’s art department, and created a media center, drawing in notable film directors like Roberto Rossellini to teach. Beginning modestly in 1960 they launched what became a major study of “Image of the Black in Western Art”. It resulted in an enormous international archive and a four-volume publication by the Menil Foundation and Harvard University.

They established the biannual Rothko Chapel Awards of $10,000 to each of five recipients for their commitment to truth and freedom. In 1986, with President Jimmy Carter, Dominique created the Carter-Menil Human Rights Prize of $100,000, awarded in Houston or Atlanta on alternate years. Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave the keynote address in 1986 and Nelson Mandela spoke at the presentation in 1994.

With John De Menil’s passing in 1973, Dominique undertook the task of building a museum to house their ever-growing collection. While the museum would have been welcome in numerous cities around the world, Dominique reasoned that Houston had laid the grounds for their lives and growing fortune. She wanted the treasures to remain in Houston, where they are displayed today in the Menil Collection, which many architects believe is the best museum in the world.

The museum is at the center of a traditional Montrose neighborhood that the de Menils purchased over many years and transformed with some gray and white paint into an urban work of art.

The neighborhood includes the museum, the Rothko Chapel, the Cy Twombly Gallery, the Dan Flavin installation, a new café, and a new Drawing Institute. A park space at the center provides a thriving heart for the neighborhood where people climb trees, have picnics, throw frisbees, and admire the wonderful surrounds.

John and Dominique de Menil were generous and creative catalysts acting on the world stage to improve the quality of life of all the people on Earth, particularly those living the Houston, Texas, region.