Ellen McBreen

Associate Professor of the History of Art


I am an art historian, exhibition curator and museum educator.  Most of my research and writing has been on 19th- and early 20th-century art, and I am a specialist on the art of Henri Matisse.  I am equally interested in the visual culture of colonialism; modernist primitivism, historical constructions of ethnicity, race and class, the history of photography, and contemporary art.  I am drawn to projects and ideas that upset expectations.


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

Research Interests

I am currently preparing essays for various exhibition publications, and serving on the Curatorial Advisory Committee to Migrating Objects, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice 2020.

I was co-curator of the international loan exhibition Matisse in the Studio (MFA Boston, and Royal Academy London 2017).  With Helen Burnham, I also co-authored the accompanying catalog, the first book in English to explore the essential role that Matisse’s personal collection of objects played in his studio practice. Our research revealed the diversity of global resources informing Matisse’s work in all media.

In Matisse’s Sculpture: The Pinup and the Primitive, published by Yale University Press in 2014, I proposed several close readings of Matisse’s appropriations from nude photography and African art in the artists’s early work (roughly 1906-1914). I argued 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 disputed 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.

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 across boundaries.

Prior to my arrival at Wheaton, I was founder and director of the educational company Paris Muse.

For more information, please visit emcbreen.com



Invited Lectures

“Dealing with Difference: Curating Cultural Appropriation,” Paris College of Arts, Paris, February 2018

“The Artist’s Studio as a Laboratory for Ideas,” Parsons Paris, The New School, Paris, November 2017

“Matisse’s Faces: A Portrait is a Quarrel,” Royal Academy, London, October 2017

“Matisse’s Sculpture: The Pinup and the Primitive,” Dartmouth College Department of Art History, October 2014, and Saint Anselm College, February 2014.

“Henri/Henriette: Matisse’s Variations on a Model,” RISD Museum, Providence, 2011. Given on occasion of the exhibition “Changing Poses: The Artists’s Model”

“‘I Paint the Differences Between Things’”: Matisse, Photography, and African Sculpture,” Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2011, Selected to give Annual Robert Rosenblum Lecture for emerging art historians.

“The Past as Future: Sculpting at the Origins of Difference, Matisse and Picasso, 1906-1908,” Instituto Cultura, Fundación Mapfre, Madrid, 2007


“Provocations in Art: Cultural Appropriations,” with Yinka Shonibare, Royal Academy, London, September 2017

“Matisse and his Palette of Objects,” Looking at Matisse Today: A Symposium, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, October 2016.

“Digital Art History: Opportunities to Engage,” Panel: A Digital Publications Future, CAA, New York, 2015

“Matisse and the Anti-Commodity Mystique of African Sculpture,” Panel: Antimodernism(s) in French Art and Culture, 1890-1914, CAA, Chicago, 2014

Moderator, “Land Reformations,” with exhibiting artists for Sitelines, Wheaton’s Beard and Weil Galleries, 2011

“Cracking the Da Vinci Code at the Louvre,” Panel: A Novel Approach: The Fusion of Art History and Historical Fiction, CAA, Boston, 2006


“Africa and Oceania in Venice,” essay for Peggy Guggenheim: The Last Dogaressa, to be published in 2019 by the Guggenheim Foundation, Italy.

“Africa and Eros in Matisse’s Sculpture,” essay for Matisse: Metamorphoses, to be published in 2019, Kunsthaus Zürich.

Essay Entries (20) for Tout Matisse. Paris: Éditions Robert Laffont, 2019.

Matisse in the Studio. Museum of Fine Arts Boston Publications, 2017. Editor and Contributing Author. Other authors: Jack Flam, Suzanne Blier, Claudine Grammont, Helen Burnham, and Hélène Ivanoff.

“American Responses to Matisse’s Nudes,” in Matisse and American Art, Montclair, NJ: Montclair Art Museum, 2017.

“Peindre les relations entre les objets,” in Henri Matisse: Une palette d’objets, Musée Matisse, Nice, Editions Artlys, 2016.

Matisse’s Sculpture: The Pinup and the Primitive. Yale University Press, 2014.

“Matisse’s Le Cauchemar de l’Eléphant Blanc,” Providence RISD Museum, Manual: A Resource About Art and Its Making 3 (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 CelesteARTnews, 2001-2008.

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

Student Projects

Sarah Estrela, “Aaron Douglas and the Barnes Foundation: The Complexities of Racial Identity” Advisor, Honors Thesis (2015)

Dania Piscetta, “‘All the Splendors of the Chinese Masters:’ Henri Matisse’s Interpretation of Chinese Painting and Decorative Arts,” Advisor, Honors Thesis (2011)

Watson Conversations, Digital Interpretation Project, with Art of the Avant-Gardes, Spring 2011, and Photography as Knowledge, Spring 2013

Critical Concepts in Art History: For Students, By Students A project with seminar students in “Art History Today: A Critical Assessment,” Spring 2015 http://art-history-concepts.webspace.wheatoncollege.edu/

Faculty Advisor, ARTHive Revue




ARTH 198 Introduction to Modern Art

ARTH 198 Introduction to Contemporary Art

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 245 Postwar and Contemporary Art: 1945-2000

ARTH 257 Photography as Knowledge (1830-1930)


Migrating Objects: Race and Place in Art History

Matisse and Methods

French Art and Its Others (1830-1930)

The Art of Writing About Art (FYS)