University of St. Thomas (UST)

Founded by the Basilian Fathers in 1947, UST remains Houston’s only Catholic institution of higher education, dedicated to upholding the high standards outlined in the papal constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990).

The Basilian charism emphasizes: serving the local community; academic integration in real world environments; interdisciplinary faculty collaboration; and education of the whole person (body, mind, and spirit).

Art History Legacy

The University is in the Museum District of Houston. This was not coincidental. By 1926, the Houston Museum of Fine Art was established as the first art museum in the state of Texas, adjacent to the newly-established Rice University (1912). In 1947 when UST was founded, the southern area of Montrose was considered the cultural center of the city.

In the 1950s, the notable art collectors John and Dominique de Menil sponsored the founding of the Art Department at UST, coinciding with the first Menil Museum that was housed in (what is now) Jones Theater on the campus. The Menils were devoted Roman Catholics who began collecting artworks, encouraged by the artist and theorist, Marie-Alain Couturier (1897–1954), a Dominican friar and priest.

With Dominique de Menil (1908 – 1997) as Chair of the Art Department and her collection on campus, during the 1960s, the young university had one of the most innovative academic programs in the Visual Arts. Famous artists like Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, René Magritte, and Jean-Luc Godard lectured here; famous architects like Louis I. Kahn and Buckminster Fuller met with its students. UST also sponsored significant archaeological excavations at the Via Gabina Villa near Rome, directed by Professor Walter Widrig. With these resources, UST’s Art Department published important studies which continue to be used by scholars around the world.

This era ended in 1971 when the Menil Collection was moved to Rice University, initiating the creation of their Art History department; however this neither changed the Menils involvement with UST nor the university’s commitment to the Fine Arts.  In 1985 when Dominique decided to build a permanent home for her collection adjoining the UST campus, she naturally sought to reengage its students and recapture the spiritual dimension of the study of her art collection. As a result, Renzo Piano’s design of the Menil Collection provides an intimate and calming atmosphere for quiet contemplation for UST students.

The special relationship between UST and the Menil family left an indelible impression on the campus. The Menils collaborated with the architect Philip Johnson (1906–2005) to design the academic mall in 1957, being the first example of a university completely fashioned in the International Style, securing its place in architectural history. The layout of the campus somewhat resembles Thomas Jefferson’s design of the University of Virginia, while fully committed to Le Corbusier’s Modulor system.

Philip Johnson also drafted the original sanctuary, now known as the Rothko Chapel (1971), which was intended to be UST’s student chapel. Today the Rothko Chapel is internationally celebrated by art critics as the first example of “postmodern sacred space” in America. Eventually Johnson would “complete” his  master-plan 40 years later when the Chapel of St. Basil was constructed in 2001; his design manifests geometrical symbolism and modern-Thomist aesthetics as conveyed in the writings of Étienne Gilson (1884–1978) and Jacques Maritain (1882–1973), as well as the modernist theories of Kazimir Malevich (1878–1935). Hence the chapel is an artwork that synthesizes concepts within philosophy, theology, mathematics, and art—in short, it is a modern monument to the Liberal Arts tradition.

Through the Art History program, UST continues to be active in the museum community. Eighteen museums surround the University and showcase the broad scope of the arts and sciences from around the world. UST faculty have contributed to exhibitions, committees, and publications at these institutions. UST’s partnership with the Glassell School of Art, a subsidiary of the Museum of Fine Art, is a prime of example of our unique role within the Houston visual arts community.

UST Publications

Art Department. Art has Many Facets: the artistic fascination with the cube (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1963)

Art Department (in collaboration with René Magritte). Magritte: an Exhibition (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1964)

Art Department. Through the Porthole (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1965)

Art Department. Constant Companions: mythological animals, demons and monsters, phantasmal creatures and various anatomical assemblages (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1965)

Art Department. Builders and Humanists: the Renaissance Popes as Patrons of the Arts (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1966)

Art Department. Mixed Masters. (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1967)

Art Department. Six painters: Mondrian, Guston, Kline, De Kooning, Pollock [and] Rothko (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1968)

Grancsay, Stephen. Made of Iron (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1966)

Houser, R.E. Medieval Masters: Essays in memory of Msgr. E.A. Synan (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1999)

Maurer, Armand. About Beauty: a Thomistic interpretation (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1983)

Menil, Dominique de. Tribal art from Negro Africa (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1965)

Widrig, Walter M. A Young Teaching Collection (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1969)


Barnes, Susan. The Rothko Chapel: an act of faith (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989)

Couturier, Marie-Alain and Dominique de Menil. Sacred Art (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989)

Gilson, Etienne. Painting and Reality (The A.W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts) (London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1957)

Helfenstein, Josef, and Laureen Schipsi. Art and Activism: Projects of John and Dominique de Menil (New Haven: Menil Collection and Yale University Press, 2010)

Malevich, Kasimir. The Non-Objective World: The Manifesto of Suprematism (Chicago: P. Tehobald, 1959)

Matisse, Henri, M.-A. Couturier, L.-B. Rayssiguier et al. The Vence Chapel: the archive of a creation (Milan: Menil Foundation and Skira Editore, 1999)

Maritain, Jacques. Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts) (New York: Pantheon, 1953)

Petit, Emmanuel and Robert Stern. Philip Johnson: The Constancy of Change (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009)

Schulze, Franz. Philip Johnson: Life and Work (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996)

Smart, Pamela. Sacred Modern: Faith, Activism, and Aesthetics (Austin: University of Texas, 2011)

Texas State Historical Association. “Basilian Fathers.” Archival Material.

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