Ellen McBreen

Professor and Chair History of Art; Coordinator of Design


Watson 144

Fall 2022: Wed 3:30-5:30pm (drop in)


I currently serve as Chair for History of Art, and Coordinator of the Design Program

My work is about 19th- and early 20th-century art, design, and visual culture in Europe. I focus on what objects and related texts can tell us about gender and sexuality, race, imperialism, colonialism, and creative resistance.  Although I’m an historian, I’m inspired by contemporary practitioners, to mine their relevant questions, activism, and ideas to enrich inquiries into the past.  Here I am on a panel with Yinka Shonibare, for example, at the London RA in 2018.

At Wheaton, my commitment to anti-racism and equity has led to two public conferences about social justice initiatives in the visual arts:  Brick by Brick: Building Anti-Racist Arts Organizations (April 2021) and Pass the Mic! Create. Curate. Care (October 2021).

My publications have explored themes ranging from how African visual and material culture was creatively appropriated by artists and thinkers based in Europe and the US, to how female collaborators have been erased from the story of European modernism. You can read more about my scholarship here.

I’m also a curator and museum educator. In 2017, I was co-curator of Matisse in the Studio (MFA Boston and Royal Academy, London) with Helen Burnham and Ann Dumas. I served on the curatorial committee for Migrating Objects: Arts of Africa Oceania and the Americas at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, 2020.  I give a brief intro to the exhibition here.

At Wheaton, I teach courses ranging from 100-levels (Introduction to Modern Art, Design History and Theory, Introduction to Photography) to 300-level seminars (Race and Place in Art History, Cultural Appropriation in a Postcolonial Context). Some of my courses are cross-listed with Design and Film and New Media Studies  Course workshops are often based on direct study of objects in Wheaton College’s Permanent Collection and Beard and Weil Galleries, as well as in nearby collections like RISD Museum and Boston MFA.  Whenever possible, coursework features an archival component, to give students an opportunity to conduct humanities research with primary materials. Student research and writing often lead to digital publications.




Ph.D., Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

M.A., Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

B.A., Harvard University. Fine Arts/Visual & Environmental Studies (studio arts)

Research Interests

My first book was an attempt to reassess the ways we understand early 20th-century modernist “primitivism” in France though one its primary artists. Matisse’s Sculpture: The Pinup and the Primitive (Yale University Press, 2014) examines the artist’s conceptual reliance on figural sculpture made in West and Central Africa in conjunction with erotic and ethnographic photography.  I propose 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.

The book deals with topics as diverse as the reception, understanding, and historiography of African sculpture in early twentieth-century France; the politics embedded in the visual culture of French colonialism; and the impact of non-elite forms of image-making (commercial photography and the history of mechanical reproduction) on the fine arts. Some of the ideas from this book served as the basis for the 2019-2020 Matisse: Metamorphosis exhibition at the Kunsthaus, Zürich, and Musée Matisse.

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.  We examined traditions ranging from North African textiles, Algerian metalwork, to Samoan barkcloths, while critically considering the broader implications of these appropriations.

I was co-curator for Migrating Objects, Arts of Africa, Oceanic and the Americas in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice 2020, as well as contributor to the exhibition catalog.  My essay examined Guggenheim’s African and Oceanic collecting choices in the 1960s in the context of modernist primitivism, identifying how her selections of Baga or Kota sculpture echoed the appropriations of Picasso and other modernists from earlier that century.

My most recent essay “Lydia Delectorskaya and the Making of Matisse” (2022) attempts to uncover the concrete material labors Delectorskaya contributed as Matisse’s studio assistant, and how their collaboration impacted works in which she appears as model.

Although my work is primarily focused on European art history, I am fascinated by the role visual culture and technology has played in shaping points of contact across cultural boundaries.  I believe that our conceptions of modernity can be opened by a larger global set of questions, arising from the movement of ideas and objects.

Prior to my arrival at Wheaton, I was founder and director of the educational company Paris Muse, and wrote about contemporary art in Paris for various publications.


Invited Lectures

“Lydia Delectorskaya and the Making of Matisse,” Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, December 2021.

“Myths, Muses, and Surrealism” Online lecture series (3) for the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice Italy, May 2021

“Rethinking Primitivism with Migrating Objects,” Online Lecture for the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice Italy, December 2020

“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.  Listen.

“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


Pass the Mic! Create. Curate. Care (organizer and moderator) featuring 13 artists, activists, and curators. Wheaton College online conference, October 2021

Brick by Brick: Building Anti-Racist Arts Organizations (organizer and moderator), with Anita Bateman, Suzanne Blier, Larry Ossei-Mensah, and Jasmine Wahi, Wheaton College History of Art online conference, April 2021

“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

“The Arts in Providence: Creating Community” (organizer and moderator) with Lynne Harlowe, Daniel Schleifer, and Lynne McCormack, 2013.

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



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

Matisse in the Studio. Boston: Boston Museum of Fine Arts Publications, 2017.
Editor and Contributing Author with Jack Flam, Suzanne Blier, Claudine Grammont, Helen Burnham, and Hélène Ivanoff. You can listen to a Modern Art Notes podcast interview about the exhibition here.

Book Chapters

“Lydia Delectorskaya and the Making of Matisse,” and “Woman in Blue,” in Matisse in the 1930s, ed. Cécile Debray, Claudine Grammont and Matthew Affron, exh. cat. Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Paris, Musée d’Orsay; Nice, Musée Matisse; Réunion des musées nationaux, 2022.

“Migrating Objects: From Maker to Museum,” in Greene, Vivien, ed. Migrating Objects: Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Guggenheim Foundation, Italy, 2020.

“Africa and Oceania in Venice,” in Vail, Karole, Vivien Greene, eds. Peggy Guggenheim: The Last Dogaressa. Venice: Marsilio Editori/Guggenheim Foundation, 2019.

“Africa and Eros in Matisse’s Sculpture,” in Gianfreda, Sandra, Claudine Grammont, eds. Matisse: Metamorphoses. Zürich: Kunsthaus Zürich/Scheidegger & Spiess, 2019.

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

“Peindre les relations entre les objets,” in Pulvenis de Séligny, Marie-Thérèse, ed. Henri Matisse: Une palette d’objets. Musée Matisse, Nice, Editions Artlys, 2016.

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

Other Publications

Book Review: “The ‘Black Art’ Renaissance: African Sculpture and Modernism Across Continents by Joshua Cohen,” The Burlington Magazine 163 (July 2021): 644-646.

Essay Entries (20) in Grammont, Claudine, ed. Tout Matisse. Paris: Éditions Robert Laffont, 2019.

“Matisse’s Le Cauchemar de l’Eléphant Blanc,” Providence RISD Museum, Manual: A Journal About Art and its Making 3 (2014).

“Matisse: Painter as Sculptor,” (exhibition review) in Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide 8:1 (Spring 2009).

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

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

“Emile-Antoine Bourdelle,” entry for Encyclopedia of Sculpture, ed. Antonia Boström. New York and London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004.

Student Projects

Founder and Faculty Advisor, ARTHive Revue (student-run platform for art and culture essays)

Pass the Mic! Create. Curate. Care. An online resource for the October 2021 Wheaton conference, focusing on social justice and the visual arts. Collaboration with Emily Gray and Liv Doherty (Class of 2022)

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/

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

Watson Conversations, 2011—Inaugurated a digital platform for students to develop interpretative podcasts for objects in Wheaton’s Permanent Collection. With students in Art of the Avant-Gardes, Spring 2011, and Photography as Knowledge, Spring 2013

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







ARTH 122 Introduction to Modern Art in Europe

ARTH 198/DES 198 History & Theory of Design (New course, Spring 2023)

ARTH 132 Introduction to Contemporary Art and Design

ARTH 142 Introduction to Photography

ARTH 298 Career Ready: Contemporary Art and Design (SE course)

ARTH 240 Art of the Avant-Gardes, 1900-1945: France, Germany, Italy and Russia

ARTH 250 Modernism and Mass Culture in France, 1848-1914

ARTH 257 Photography as Knowledge, 1830-1930

ARTH 298 Curating Immigration Histories


Limits of Visibility and the Ethics of Representation

Art and Race: Africa in Modern France, 1830-1930

Cultural Appropriation in a PostColonial Context

Migrating Objects: Race and Place in Art History

Art History: A Critical Assessment

Matisse and Methods

What is Art For? (First Year Experience)

The Art of Writing About Art (First Year Seminar)