Ellen McBreen

Professor and Chair History of Art
Coordinator of Design


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)


Currently Chair for History of Art, and Coordinator of the Design Program

Director of the Wheaton Institute for interdisciplinary Humanities (WIIH) 2022-2024: Whose Normal? Designing for Difference.

My research interests are late 19th- and 20th-century art, design, and visual culture in Europe, and 20th-century art in the U.S. I’m an historian but I’m also inspired by contemporary practitioners to mine their questions, activism, and resistance to enrich inquiries into the past.  Here I am on a panel with Yinka Shonibare and Wessie Ling for example, at the Royal Academy, London in 2018. My publications have explored topics ranging from how African visual and material culture was creatively appropriated by artists and thinkers based in Europe and the U.S., to how female collaborators have been erased from the stories of European modernism. My most recent published work amplifies the many studio roles of Lydia Delectorskaya, who is featured prominently in a current exhibition about Matisse in the 1930s.  More scholarship info in the Publications section.

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. A brief intro to that exhibition is here.

My support for our collective social equity work at Wheaton led to recent public programs such as Brick by Brick: Building Anti-Racist Arts Organizations (April 2021) and Pass the Mic! Create. Curate. Care (October 2021).

At Wheaton, I teach courses ranging from 100-levels (Introduction to Modern Art in Europe, Design History and Theory, Introduction to Photography) to 300-level seminars (Race and Place in Art History, Cultural Appropriation in a Postcolonial Context). My courses are cross-listed with Design, African, African American Diaspora Studies, and Film and New Media Studies. Work with students is 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 or MFA Boston. Whenever possible, coursework features an archival component, to give students an opportunity to conduct in-depth arts and humanities research with primary materials. Student research and writing often lead to digital publications.



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.
Co-editor and author of two chapters.

Work in Progress

Co-author with Claudine Grammont. Henri Matisse, Paris: Les éditions Citadelles et Mazenod, forthcoming, 2024.

Book Chapters and Articles

“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.

—An edited version of this essay was published as “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.

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

Reviews, Entries, Podcasts

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

Essay Entries (15) in Grammont, Claudine, ed. Tout Matisse. Paris: Éditions Robert Laffont, 2018.

Episode No. 286 of The Modern Art Notes Podcast with Tyler Green, April 2017

“Matisse’s Le Cauchemar de l’Eléphant Blanc,” Providence RISD Museum, Manual: A Journal About Art and its Making 3 (2014): 58-59.

“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.

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

Digital Projects/Media and Outreach

Founder, Editor and Faculty Advisor, ARTHive Revue, 2011–

Introduction to the Migrating Objects exhibition, and Migrating Objects In focus #1 segment the Peggy Guggenheim Collection site, 2020

Interview for Matisse in the Studio at the Royal Academy, London France 24 TV, 2017

Editor, Critical Concepts in Art History, For Students By Students, 2015

RISD Museum: “Matisse, Still Life with Lemons (Whose Forms Correspond To a Drawing of a Black Vase upon the Wall)” 2014. Channel 18.

Watson Conversations, 2011—


Invited Lectures

“Erasing Labor: 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 for the Annual Robert Rosenblum Lecture for emerging art historians].

“Henri Matisse, Serial Portraitist,” Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Connecticut, 2008. [Given on occasion of the exhibition “Paris Portraits”]

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

Conferences and Panels/Speaker

“Matisse, the Model & the Studio,” with Claudine Grammont and Matthew Affron, The Irma and Herbert Barness Endowed Lecture, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2022.  Watch.

“Provocations in Art: Cultural Appropriations,” with Yinka Shonibare and Wessie Ling, 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

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

“Matisse, the Maghreb, and the Model,” Panel: Oriental Erotics, CAA, Philadelphia, 2002

“The Primitivism of Matisse’s Sculpted Nudes,” Metropolitan Museum Research Fellows Colloquium, New York, 2001

Documents and Les Noirs: The Representation of Race in a Surrealist Journal.” New Scholars/New Ideas Symposium, Virginia Commonwealth University, 2000

“The Victorian Mad Woman Confined: Dr. Hugh Welch Diamond’s Photographs of the Insane,” History of Photography Group Symposium, Manhattanville College, New York, 1997

“Richard Bruce Nugent’s Salome (1930): The Spectacle of Homosexuality in the Harlem Renaissance,” CAA, Boston, 1996

Panels and Conferences/Organization

Pass the Mic! Create. Curate. Care (lead organizer and moderator) featuring 13 artists, activists, and curators. 2-day 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

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

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

Courses and Students



Art and Race: Africa in Modern France (1830-1930)
The Art of Writing About Art (First Year Seminar)
What is Art For? (First Year Seminar, taught with two colleagues from Visual Arts and Theatre)
Curating Immigration Histories (curatorial practicum with Rhode Island Historical Society, interrupted by Covid)
Matisse and the Methods of Art History (Research Methods)
Senior capstone seminars (open to non-majors with permission):
The Limits of Visibility and the Politics of Representation (curatorial practicum)
Cultural Appropriation in a Postcolonial Context
Race and Place in Art History
Art History Today: A Critical Assessment

Lecture Courses

ARTH 198/DES 198, Introduction to Design History and Theory
ARTH 142, Introduction to Photography
ARTH 122 Introduction to Modern Art in Europe
ARTH 240, Arts of the Avant Gardes in France, Germany, Italy, and Russia, 1900-1945
ARTH 200, Introduction to Contemporary Art and Design
ARTH 250, Modernism and Mass Culture in France, 1848-1914
ARTH 257, Photography as Knowledge in the Nineteenth Century
ARTH 398, Postwar & Contemporary Art and Design Since 1945

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)



Research Interests

My first book was an attempt to reassess 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 by unrecorded makers from 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 sculpture in the artists’s early work (roughly 1906-1914). I argued for the many roles played by these two resources in Matisse’s attempts to 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 conceived and co-curated the Matisse in the Studio  (loan exhibition at Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and Royal Academy London 2017).  With Helen Burnham, I edited and authored half of 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 range of international resources informing Matisse’s work in all media. We examined makers and traditions such as North African textiles, Algerian metalwork, Samoan barkcloths, while critically considering the broader ethical implications of European appropriation in colonialist contexts.

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

A more recent essay “Lydia Delectorskaya and the Making of Matisse” (2022) for the Matisse in the 1930s exhibition book 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 published work is primarily focused on art made in Europe and the U.S. (1880-1960), my approach is transnational and transhistorical. I try to understand the roles visual culture, design and technology play in shaping points of contact across cultural boundaries, real or imagined.

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.


Film and New Media Studies
Visual Art and History of Art



Watson 144


Fall 2023 on leave.
Spring 2024:
Monday 2:30-5pm, and by appointment