Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College


Ellen McBreen

Ellen McBreen

Assistant Professor of Art History

Ph.D., Institute of Fine Arts, New York University
M.A., Institute of Fine Arts, New York University
B.A., Joint Concentration: Fine Arts/Visual & Environmental Studies (studio arts), Harvard University

Main Interests

19th- and early 20th-century European art; the visual culture of French colonialism; history of photography; the relationship between mass culture and avant-garde expression; contemporary art

Research Interests

Matisse Book Cover

My most recent project was a book-length study of Henri Matisse's sculpture, published by Yale University Press in 2014. It offers several close readings of Matisse's appropriations from nude photography and African art in the artists's early work (roughly 1906-1914). I argue for the pivotal roles played by these two resources in helping Matisse refigure the European tradition of the nude, and the dominant narratives of identity that tradition was meant to support. The project disputes the notion that Matisse—primarily known as a painter—was only a sculptor on the side, by demonstrating how his sculptures' nuanced play with constructions of race and gender is, in fact, a key to understanding the Parisian avant-garde's larger fascination with cultural and sexual origins. It also seeks to explain the meaningful relationships, productively mined by Matisse, between mass cultural nudes and African, sculpted ones.

I am currently researching and preparing an international loan exhibition that will reunite several objects from Matisse's personal collection—Islamic furniture and metalwork, Chinese porcelain, Oceanic textiles—with the paintings and sculptures inspired by pictorial concepts gleaned from these same objects.  The exhibition and its related scholarly catalog will cover episodes from the entirety of Matisse's career (roughly 40 years) in an effort to chart how these different cultural traditions played very different and complex roles at successive moments in the artist's development.

Although my current work is primarily focused on European art, it is grounded in the idea that the history of modernism is a culturally hybrid history. I am fascinated by the role visual culture and technology has played in shaping points of contact between Europe and its imagined Others.

Teaching Interests

Student Project

Sarah Estrela, Honors Thesis (2014-2015)

Dania Piscetta, "'All the Splendors of the Chinese Masters:' Henri Matisse's Interpretation of Chinese Painting and Decorative Arts," Honors Thesis (2011)

Lecture Courses

ARTH 111 Arts of the Western Tradition
ARTH 250 Modernism and Mass Culture in France, 1848-1914
ARTH 240 Art of the Avant-Gardes, 1900-1945: France, Germany, Italy and Russia
ARTH 340 Postwar and Contemporary Art, 1945-2000

Photography as Knowledge (new course)


ARTH 398 Matisse and Methods
ARTH 300 French Art and Its Others (1830-1930)

The Art of Writing About Art (FYS)


Matisse's Sculpture: The Pinup and the Primitive (Yale University Press, 2014).

"Matisse: Painter as Sculptor,"(exhibition review) in Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide, Spring 2009.

"Escultura en los orígenes de la diferencia: Matisse y Picasso en 1907" in Arte Moderno: Ideas y conceptos. Madrid: Fundación Cultural, Mapfre Vida, 2008.

"The Joy of Life, The Idyllic in French Art, circa 1900 by Margaret Werth,"(book review) Modernism/modernity 11:3 (September 2004): 596-598.

Paris-based gallery exhibition reviewer for Art in AmericaTema Celeste, ARTnews, 2001-2008.

"Biblical Gender Bending in Harlem: The Queer Performance of Nugent's Salome (1930)," Art Journal 57:3 (Fall 1998): 22-28.