Obituary: Dominique de Menil

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DOMINIQUE and Jean de Menil were a young couple with a growing family when they moved to Houston in 1941. They had spent much of the early war years apart, Jean in Romania, sabotaging rail deliveries to Nazi forces, Dominique with the children at the family home in the South of France.

Jean de Menil had come to Houston to establish Schlumberger (his wife's family firm) as an overseas company, independent of Vichy France. Over the next few decades, they were to amass one of the great private art collections in the world - some 15,000 pieces spanning 4,000 years. Meanwhile, they had become equally interested in the ecumenical movement and the cause of human rights around the world.

Dominique was the daughter of Conrad Schlumberger, the French inventor who, with the financial backing of his father and in partnership with his brother Marcel, had spent more than 20 years perfecting the electronic logging device that would transform oil exploration around the world, and gradually build the enormous family fortune.

The Schlumbergers had no interest in art. They were scientists and inventors. Dominique was brought up in Paris and took graduate and postgraduate degrees in mathematics and physics at the Sorbonne. She met her husband, Baron Jean de Menil, a banker, at a party in Versailles; he joined Schlumberger a few years after their marriage in 1931.

In New York in the early 1940s, the de Menils met the Dominican Father Marie-Alain Couturier, who had brought the art of Matisse, Leger and Rouault into chapels in France. He became their guide and mentor. On one occasion they paid $2,000 for a Cezanne watercolour and Dominique's mother was appalled. "Father, they will have to eat crumbs at this rate." "Better to eat crumbs than to live without art," was Couturier's reply.

The de Menils became insatiable. They borrowed money to buy art and they campaigned to bring art into the lives of others. They had found in Houston a small Museum of Fine Arts with an excellent collection. As board members, building the collections and the professional staff, they urged that exhibits be advertised on city buses and billboards.

In 1951, as volunteers, they curated a Van Gogh retrospective in the new Contemporary Art Museum, set up by young enthusiasts (it had cost $5,000 to build). The two young amateur curators travelled by train to bring back treasured paintings on loan. They included the famous Portrait of Dr Gachet (which, in the 1980s, fetched many millions at auction). The de Menils gave Max Ernst his first exhibition outside a commercial gallery. They built a large collection of the works of Ernst and Rene Magritte. With naturalisation in 1962, Jean became John.

In 1954, they established the non-profit Menil Foundation to foster knowledge and understanding in art, architecture and philosophy. Approached by the new Catholic University of St Thomas, they commissioned Philip Johnson to design the master plan for the campus, and went on to found an outstanding art department. They brought in Jermayne McAgy as its chairman.

The university gained a reputation for the artistry of its exhibitions. When McAgy died suddenly in 1964, Dominique de Menil took over. She became known for the imaginative and dramatic installation of her exhibitions - for example "Rhyme and Reason", paintings from the Menil Collection in 1986 at the Grand Palais in Paris.

In 1969 the de Menils founded the Institute of the Arts at Rice University, Houston, expanded Rice's art department, and created a media centre, drawing in distinguished 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 a massive international archive and a four-volume publication by the Menil Foundation and Harvard University.

Devout Catholics, the de Menils founded the octagonal Rothko Chapel in Houston to be an ecumenical chapel open to all. It opened in 1971. It was dedicated to meditation and peace, and is decorated with 14 large dark panels by the abstract artist Mark Rothko. There Dominique de Menil called together leaders of world religions for week-long colloquia. The Dalai Lama came. In 1978 and again in 1994 the Whirling Dervishes performed their graceful, haunting rites. Typically, in 1979 Dominique de Menil went to Turkey to visit them in their homes.

She became ever more vividly aware in her wide travels of atrocities across the world, and of the courage of those who countered them; in response she established the biannual Rothko Chapel Awards of $10,000 to each of five recipients for their commitment to truth and freedom. She also founded the Oscar Romero Award of $20,000, named after the El Salvador bishop assassinated at the altar in 1980. In 1986, with President Jimmy Carter, she established 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 when he was given a special pounds 100,000 prize. In 1984 a Carter-Menil award went to the Institute of Applied Science in Oslo for its efforts to bring peace between Israel and the PLO.

With John de Menil's death in 1973, Dominique de Menil began alone the task of building a museum to house their still growing collection. She chose as architect Renzo Piano, who with Richard Rogers had designed the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and said she wanted it to look small on the outside and big on the inside. It does. It opened in 1986 and has received consistent critical acclaim for its simplicity. Built with contributions from other Houston foundations including the Brown, Cullen and Hobby Foundations, the Menil Collection is open free to the public from Wednesday to Sunday.

Later the de Menils commissioned Piano to design a gallery for their art works by Cy Twombly. Twombly then added his own collection to the gallery's.

The Menil Collection is in the heart of what has become known as Meniland, a neighbourhood of 3.2 acres of land given over to 1920s and 1930s one- storey bungalows, which they bought in the 1960s and painted grey with white trim. Some bungalows are used for office space. The rest are rented, some to long-time residents, some to those who want to be a part of the art world. The Menil Collection stands comfortably amid them at one end, the Rothko Chapel at the other.

Dominique de Menil's last building project was the Byzantine Fresco Chapel. Originally painted in a small chapel on Cyprus, these exquisite frescoes had been hacked into portable hunks by vandals who later sold them. The Menil Foundation rescued them and had them restored on behalf of the Greek Orthodox Church. They are now sheltered in a small, exquisite chapel designed by the de Menils' son Francois.

Over the decades, as their private collection became well known throughout the art world, the de Menils were courted by the major museums of Europe and America, anxious as to where their collection might end up. But, Dominique de Menil reasoned, they had made their lives and their fortune in Houston - the centre of the oil industry. Therefore, the treasures must remain in Houston.

Dominique Schlumberger, arts patron and philanthropist: born Paris 23 March 1908; married 1931 Baron Jean de Menil (died 1973; two sons, three daughters); died Houston, Texas 31 December 1997.