Ellen McBreen

Associate Professor and Chair History of Art


I currently serve as Co-Chair, Department of Visual Art and History of Art (2021–

Most of my work focuses on 19th- and early 20th-century art and visual culture.  I am a specialist in the art of Henri Matisse.  My primary discipline is the history of art, which often brings me to other areas in the humanities. I focus on what objects and related texts can tell us about the histories of gender and sexuality, myths and perceptions about race, imperialism, colonialism, and creative resistance.  Although I am an historian, I turn to contemporary practitioners, to use their relevant questions, activism, and ideas to enrich inquiries into the past.

My first book was an attempt to reassess the ways we understand early 20th-century modernist “primitivism” in France though one its primary actors. 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.  Some of my ideas served as the basis for the 2019-2020 Matisse: Metamorphosis exhibition at the Kunsthaus, Zürich, and Musée Matisse, Nice. More recently, I was co-editor and contributing author to Matisse in the Studio (Museum of Fine Arts Boston Publications, 2017).

At Wheaton, I teach courses ranging in depth, from several 100-levels (Introduction to Modern Art, Introduction to Photography, Career-Ready: Contemporary Art and Design) to advanced methodological seminars (Race and Place in Art History, Cultural Appropriation in a Postcolonial Context). Modernism and Mass Culture 1848-1914 is cross-listed with Film and New Media Studies, for its exploration of artistic responses to new media formations. All of my courses usually include direct study of works in art in Wheaton College’s Permanent Collection and Beard and Weil Galleries, as well as in nearby museums like RISD 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.

I recently collaborated with Tripp Evans on Curating Immigration Histories, designed to give students hands-on experience with curatorial research.  We explored the parallel histories of Wheaton College and Providence, RI, via primary archival materials, to focus on individual responses to immigration, racial injustice, and historical efforts to define American identity.

I am also an exhibition 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 as curatorial advisor 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.


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

Most of my projects focus on how artists, writers, and others appropriated from other cultures, to translate ideas and/or objects for their own strategic ends.

I was Curatorial Advisor to Migrating Objects, Arts of Africa, Oceanic and the Americas in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice 2020, as well as contributor to the exhibition catalog.

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.

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.

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.

Although my work has primarily focused on European history, I am fascinated by the role visual culture and technology has played in shaping points of contact across 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

“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



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.

Book Chapters

“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

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

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

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, Digital Interpretation Project, with 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 142 Introduction to Photography

ARTH 298 Career Ready: Contemporary Art and Design (Experiential Learning Course, EXP)

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

ARTH 257 Photography as Knowledge (1830-1930)

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

ARTH 245 Postwar and Contemporary Art: 1945-2000


French Art and Its Others (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? (FYE)

The Art of Writing About Art (FYS)