Ellen McBreen

Associate Professor of Art History


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


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

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.

For more information, please visit emcbreen.com


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).

Entries for Dictionnaire Henri Matisse; forthcoming, Paris: Éditions Robert Laffont, 2016.

“The Body of Matisse: Reception in America (working title),” forthcoming essay for the exhibition catalog Matisse and American Art. Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey, 2017.

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

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

Digital Publication Collaborations

Watson Conversations, Digital Interpretation Project

Art of the Avant-Gardes, Spring 2011

Photography as Knowledge, Spring 2013

Critical Concepts in Art History: For Students, By Students

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

Faculty Advisor, ARTHive Revue

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 245 Postwar and Contemporary Art: 1945-2000
ARTH 257 Photography and Knowledge (1830-1930)


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

The Art of Writing About Art (FYS)

Recent Lectures

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

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

“‘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.