The real Menil

If Menil had one contemporary rival as America’s premier postwar Maecenas, it was her fellow connoisseur-collector and museum builder Paul Mellon (1907–1999). Both these formidable figures possessed an uncanny “eye” and instinct for the best, though each had quite different tastes (his aristocratic and Anglophile, hers austere and global) and diametric temperaments (he psychoanalytical and secular, she religious and spiritual).

Last year, the hundredth anniversary of Mellon’s birth was celebrated by commemorative exhibitions at the several museums and galleries he founded and enriched. There will be no such formal observances in honor of Menil, which is wholly appropriate because she seemed to exist outside normal notions of time. Those who knew her invariably describe her as otherworldly. On the few occasions Menil and I met, she was gracious and comme-il-faut to a fault, but gave the distinct impression of being somewhere else, as if listening to Gregorian chants only she could hear. Nonetheless, she was more acutely attuned to the creative forces of her times than almost anyone.

The thematically unrelated yet oddly complementary areas she and her husband, the Schlumberger executive John de Menil (1904–1973), focused on—surrealist and twentieth-century painting and sculpture, African and Northwest American tribal artifacts, antiquities from the Paleolithic to the classical, and Byzantine art—gives the Menil Collection an intensely personal character, reminiscent of the renowned Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, with a comparable mix of quality and quirkiness that makes it impossible to confuse it with any other museum.

In June 1835 Pugin converted to Catholicism, which had been his abiding passion throughout the previous year. His conversion led, in due course, to more commissions, many arranged by the Catholic peer John Talbot (1791–1852), sixteenth Earl of Shrewsbury and Waterford. In 1848 the widower Pugin married another Catholic convert, Jane Knill (1827–1909), who became stepmother to his six children, bore him two more of her own, and cared assiduously for him during his final years.

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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