Matisse's Sculpture The Pinup and the Primitive Ellen McBreen

Publication date:
15 Sep 2014
Yale University Press
228 pages: 279 x 229mm
50 color + 100 b-w illus.
Sales territories:


Long perceived as a side pursuit to his celebrated painting career, Henri Matisse's sculpture receives an overdue critical examination in this book. Beginning in 1906, soon after the artist acquired his first African sculpture, Matisse found inspiration in erotic and ethnographic photography, which had become inexpensively mass-produced thanks to advances in halftone technology. Working with these two radically different depictions of the body - one hand carved, the other mechanically made - was a foundational method for Matisse and crucial to the development of his pre-World War I abstraction. Far from a simple narrative of the artist "discovering" Africa, the highly original readings of Matisse's Sculpture plot new coordinates of study for early twentieth-century primitivism. The book examines the larger constructs of thought at the time, with a penetrating analysis of anthropology, popular erotica, and the visual culture of the French colonialism. In addition, it repositions Matisse's sculptural practice, particularly in regard to its investigations of race and sexuality, as a cornerstone of his prolific career.

Ellen McBreen is assistant professor in the department of art and art history at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.

‘This original study examines the artist’s thinking about, and engagement with the discipline, beginning with the purchase of his first African sculpture in 1906. Drawing on anthropology and popular culture, it promises to recalibrate how we consider the relationship between primitivism and early abstract art.’—Apollo Magazine


“A new account of the generally underappreciated, three-dimensional work of the Fauve master, [aiming] to establish the sources of Matisse’s sculpture both in photographic images of nude women and in African sculpture. The author argues that Matisse sought to fuse the two seemingly incompatible sources to generate an image of raw sensuality that broke with the conventions of the Western artistic tradition. . . . McBreen’s careful, thoughtful, formal analyses of Matisse’s sculpture prevent this book from becoming an exercise in mere iconography.”—Choice