Philanthropist and patron of the arts Dominique de Menil, daughter of Conrad and Louise (Delpech) Schlumberger, was born in Paris, France, on March 23, 1908. She was the second of three daughters. Her father was a physicist who developed technology essential for oil drilling and, with his brother, founded a business exploiting this technology that led to the still extant oilfield services company Schlumberger. Dominique Schlumberger studied mathematics and physics at the University of Paris (Sorbonne) and received a certificat d’études supérieures by 1928. In 1930 she met Jean (later John) de Menil at a party in Versailles, and the couple married on May 8, 1931. Dominique, who was a Protestant, converted to her husband’s faith of Roman Catholicism. Between 1933 and 1947 the couple had five children: Marie-Christophe, Adelaide, Georges, Franҫois, and Philippa (who later changed her name to Fariha). Due to World War II, the anti-fascist Menils left France and arrived in the United States in January 1941. By 1944 the family was permanently situated in Houston, which had long housed some of the operations of the family business Schlumberger.
The couple’s serious interest in art and collecting began in the mid-1940s. In 1948 they commissioned architect and Museum of Modern Art (New York) architecture curator Philip Johnson to design their home in the River Oaks district of Houston. This house was Johnson’s first commission (he had previously built his own home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was concurrently building his famous Glass House for himself in New Canaan, Connecticut). Dominique de Menil also employed the American couturier Charles James as interior designer on the project. The house, the first of many important Johnson buildings in Houston and Texas, is considered the first building in the “International Style” in Texas. In 1954 the Menils secured the services of Johnson again, this time for the master site plan of the University of St. Thomas in Houston, where they were major benefactors. That same year they established the Menil Foundation, dedicated to the “support and advancement of religious, charitable, literary, scientific, and educational purposes.”
John and Dominique de Menil were influenced by their strong friendship with the French Catholic priest Father Marie-Alain Couturier, a key figure in the Roman Catholic art sacré movement that strived to unite Catholic spirituality with modern art. This relationship galvanized their interest in the spiritual and the sacred in modern art and its patronage and had a lasting effect on their thoughts on both modern art and its display. They were instrumental in bringing curator and art historian Jermayne MacAgy to the University of St. Thomas, where she established an art department and curated a number of exhibitions. Dominique de Menil took an ever expanding interest in these programs and, following the unexpected passing of MacAgy in 1964, took over MacAgy’s classes and became the head of the art history department at St. Thomas. She also began installing art exhibitions at St. Thomas with works from her and John’s private collection as well as the teaching collection she had formed there.
In 1964 Dominique de Menil commissioned artist Mark Rothko to execute fourteen paintings for what was then conceived as the Roman Catholic chapel for the University of St. Thomas. These paintings were completed in 1967, but the chapel was relocated to a nearby site and incorporated as a nonsectarian, ecumenical chapel dedicated to art, spirituality, and human rights. Tensions between the de Menils and the Basilian Fathers who ran the University of St. Thomas over the chapel and other issues led Dominique de Menil to move her art history department and teaching collection to Rice University by 1969. The Rothko Chapel opened in 1971.
John and Dominique de Menil also strongly supported civil rights and encouraged exhibitions by African American artists. Their Menil Foundation sponsored the De Luxe Show, which exhibited works by black artists at Houston’s De Luxe Theater. Dominique also instigated a research project and photo archive that ultimately resulted in the publication The Image of the Black in Western Art (1979).
After the death of John de Menil on June 1, 1973, Dominique assumed a greater role as a leading art patron in Houston and internationally. In 1974 she became one of two private collectors on the Acquisitions Committee of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. In 1984 her private collection was shown at the Grand Palais in Paris in the exhibition La rime et la raison: Les collections Ménil (Houston-New York). By 1980 she had decided to open her own museum to house the collection she and John had assembled. She engaged architect Renzo Piano to design the building for the Menil Collection in Houston. The project was Piano’s first commission in the United States as well as his first major solo museum design. Piano, who had previously been the junior architect for Richard Rogers in the design of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, became a leading designer of art museums, both in the United States and abroad. The Menil Collection opened to the public on June 4, 1987, and the building won countless architectural awards, including the prestigious 25 Year Award from the American Institute of Architects in 2013. The Menil Collection continued the exhibition philosophy of the Menils—seeking to stress direct engagement with works of art without didactic wall text and creating interesting juxtapositions between works in a serene environment, lit chiefly by natural light.
In 1995 the Menil Collection opened the Cy Twombly Gallery, also designed by Piano, on the thirty-acre campus surrounding the main building. In 1997 the Byzantine Fresco Chapel, designed by son Franҫois de Menil opened on the campus, to house the restored Byzantine frescos that Dominique de Menil acquired on the black market. She made an agreement with the Church of Cyprus to return the frescos to that island after a twelve-year term. The frescos were duly returned to Cyprus in 2012. The last addition to the museum neighborhood undertaken by Menil was the 1996 commission of the Dan Flavin Installation in Richmond Hall.
During her life, Dominique de Menil, who became a U. S. citizen in 1962, received many honors, including the Officer of the Order of Arts and Letters from the French government in 1984. In 1986 President Ronald Reagan presented to her the National Medal of Arts. That same year she established the Carter-Menil Human Rights Foundation with former president Jimmy Carter. Dominique de Menil passed away at the age of eighty-nine on December 31, 1997, in Houston. Her funeral was held at St. Anne Catholic Church, and she was buried in Forest Park Cemetery in Houston.