Celebrated art collectors Dominique and John de Menil built one of the largest gatherings of work by surrealist René Magritte. And for two decades they funded the research for the artist’s five-volume catalogue raisonné.
Like they did with many artists they collected, the Menils took a deep interest in Magritte personally, developing a friendship that lasted decades. And when in 1965 the Belgian artist visited the couple in Houston, they took him to the Livestock Show and Rodeo and bought Magritte a cowboy hat.
That’s just one of the tales that emerge in “Double Vision: The Unerring Eye of Art World Avatars Dominique and John de Menil” (Knopf, $40), the exhaustively researched and extremingly satisfying dual biography of the couple whose imprint on 20th-century art and on Texas’ cultural landscape was profound.
A journalist and editor Middleton had unprecedented access to the Menil family archives to write his sweeping 800-page biography of this singular French couple who made Houston their home and converted it to a center of the arts. Middleton is the first to study nearly 1,000 personal letters between John (1904-1973) and Dominique (1908-1997) as well as some 5,000 other letters from family, friends and colleagues.
From that private archive as well as archives in France and the United States, Middleton unravels a detailed portrait of a family, starting with the couple’s ancestors in Normandy and Alsace, through their own early years in France, their emigration to United States as Nazi forces pushed into France and their travels throughout South America before settling in Houston by the end of World War II.
The couple’s fortune came from the firm started by Dominique’s father, Schlumberger Limited, which quickly became the world’s largest oil services company. John de Menil played a fundamental role in developing Schlumberger into a multi-national corporation.
Among the myriad of people important to the Menils Middleton introduces is Father Marie-Alaine Couturier, a Dominican priest dedicated to modern art and a significant figure in the couple’s development as collectors and as philanthropists. It was Father Couturier who was largely responsible for educating the de Menils on modern art, first in Paris in the 1930s, and then for a brief but intense period in 1941 in New York when the Menils were reunited after Dominque had left France.
Recalled Dominique: “I remember our first visit to the (Museum of Modern Art). We were just beginning to appreciate cubist paintings. In front of a Mondrian, I said, ‘Now this is going too far. You cannot pretend that those few rectangles are beautiful.'”
Father Courterier replied: “You may not like it but it is serious and you have to take it seriously.”
Moreover, Father Couturier impressed upon the couple that with their fortune came a responsibility to give back. Art collecting was not something cavalier, Father Couturier argued, nor was it an egotistical pursuit, meant only for the couple’s private enjoyment or to gain social recognition. Instead, the Menils should be acquiring great works of art in order enrich the lives of others.
“He made it an obligation for us — a moral obligation — to buy good paintings,” Dominique recalled.
And buy they did. The couple amassed a breathtaking collection of Western and non-Western art that spanned millennia. When the Menil Collection opened in 1987, the museum was immediately world-regarded.
Though the Menils were skilled at bringing attention to projects they believed in, they valued privacy and discretion and shielded their private lives. Hence Middleton’s copious research reveals a vastly more complex portrait of a vastly influential couple.
For readers with with a more casual interest, flipping through “Double Vision” rewards with plumy anecdotes. (For example, when she was 19, Dominqre spent time the set of the “The Blue Angel,” with Marlene Dietrich.)
But for those with any serious interest or curiosity in why Texas’s, and especially Houston’s, culture landscape is as it is now, Middleton’s book is a must.