Dominique de Menil was the graceful, spiritual heiress to a French oil services fortune who used her wealth to establish my favorite private museum. She collected the objects and artworks she loved most because she passionately, irresistibly needed to.
Dominique, who from childhood had an impulse toward collecting, acquiring such objects as ‘shells, cut-out images, exotic seeds,’ attributes her interest in art - late-blooming as it was - to her mother, who would have collected, save for her husband’s disapproval. "She had a passion for art, and in later years she did buy it, but she gave it to her grandchildren - small things, a little Klee, a little Picasso, a little Rouault," says Dominique. "What I inherited was my mother’s craving."
- Grace Glueck, THE DE MENIL FAMILY: THE MEDICI OF MODERN ART, The New York Times, May 18, 1986
She was born Dominique Isaline Zelia Henriette Clarisse Schlumberger (in case you’re hunting for gorgeous baby girl names…) in 1903. She married a banker-cum-oil man with whom she and their two little children fled Paris for Houston in 1941. And slowly the pair became sort of American. He even changed his name from Jean to John. It was in Houston they spent much of the rest of her life - ok, of course they maintained other residences, they were really wealthy - and a good part of their fortune.
Dominique (because I’m feeling too bold?) was beautiful and stylish. She didn’t just wear Charles James’s gowns, she had him decorate her house. Which, by the way, was built by Philip Johnson in 1948 - one of the first Modernist houses in Texas, and of course one of the least-tactfully received. Not only was it an architectural gem, but it was filled with paintings and sculptures she and John collected from the 1940s to their deaths - his in 1973* and hers in 1998. Collecting was her calling, one she inherited and then passed along to her children.
I arrived in Houston for three trying years of high school just around the time she died. Fortunately she had left behind her peaceful, cool museum. The Menil style - modernist, demure, French - was unlike everything else I encountered in Houston then, as a totally hostile teenager. It’s not that it was neutral in a bright place, but that it was artistic in a commercial one. Cool and calm in the face of the heat. And in the strange, tumbling city, it was very careful.
This is in part because the Menil’s collection is no where near encyclopedic. Rather it’s a treasure trove of favorites - Byzantine artifacts alongside surrealist sculptures and abstract expressionist paintings; outbuildings for commissioned works by Dan Flavin, Cy Twombly and Mark Rothko, and (temporarily) the restoration of a Byzantine chapel.
Laid out over a single story, hung on muted walls of blue and grey, when I’m in the collection it is easy for me to forget where I am, to dissolve into the subdued space, to forget myself. Of course it helps that it’s free to enter, so visiting one work is easier than trying to see it all in a day.
The Menils were Roman Catholic and deeply spiritual. For them beauty and art were meant to be poetic and transcendent rather than pedagogical. An intimate experience of a beautiful artwork or artifact was meant to instill virtue and inspire action - and the observer’s soul mattered more than her background in art history.
So far from France, where Roman Catholicism was no longer commonplace but rather a distinguishing factor for both a very select group of rich and a very large group of poor Latin immigrants, Dominique and her husband were able to turn this distinction to good - their faith was something generous, strict but not quite judgmental. Catholic in its sense as an adjective rather than as a proper noun.
So the Menils, surrounded by their collections of artworks, were social activists too: supporting local art students and black politicians, declining the segregation in Houston that still sort of exists. Their proffered donation to the city of an homage to recently assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr., by Barnett Newman was - unfathomably - refused. In the end they’ve shared it all, including the Barnett Newman, in their own way.
So, what I'm trying to say is that I'll be writing tomorrow about her fascination with grey!
* One of the best things you could read is the codicil to John’s will, which stipulated how his funeral was to be carried out. Definitely then delight yourself further by reading about the funeral itself in Texas Monthly or in Pamela Smart’s Sacred Modern.