Professor Alastair Wright

Featured Publication

Matisse and the Subject of Modernism (Princeton University Press, 2006)

Matisse and the Subject of Modernism

Focusing on the period 1905-1913, this provocative and groundbreaking new book refutes the popular view of Matisse as the painter of relaxed pleasures, the master of decorative line and sensuous color. Alastair Wright discovers a darker, more complex side to Matisse: an artist whose work, caught in the uneasy space between modernism and tradition, was fundamentally engaged with the most pressing of modernity's artistic and ideological debates. Presenting a series of brilliant and highly original analyses of Matisse's most important early paintings, Wright locates the artist within a wider cultural field in which the identities of modernism--and of its viewers--were highly contested. Wright offers a penetrating examination of the public response to Matisse's work, arguing that his early-twentieth-century audience found in his painting a deeply disturbing challenge to contemporary concepts of the self, of the nation, and of the West. This sumptuously illustrated book positions the work of Matisse and a number of his contemporaries in relation to key aspects of modernity--the commodification of the individual, the dislocation of cultural identity, and the effacement of racial boundaries under the pressure of imperial expansion--and provides a compelling account of how these contradictory historical materials fused to give birth to Matisse's modernism. What emerges is a renewed sense of the rich complexity of an artistic practice suspended between the seductive potential of pure color and an always ambivalent engagement with tradition. Tracing the interplay between Matisse's painting and discourses of art and subjectivity, Wright offers a significant new reading of one of the central figures of early-twentieth-century modernism.

  • French modernist art
  • British Pre-Raphaelitism
  • Art and Politics

My research focuses primarily on European modernisms. My first book, Matisse and the Subject of Modernism, was published by Princeton University Press in 2004, and more recently I curated an exhibition of Paul Gauguin’s prints at the Princeton University Art Museum. The accompanying catalogue, Gauguin’s Paradise Remembered: The Noa Noa Prints, examined the role played by reproduction in Gauguin’s understanding of French colonialism in Tahiti.  I have published essays inArt HistoryOxford Art JournalArt BulletinBurlington MagazineGazette des Beaux-ArtsArtforum InternationalNineteenth-Century Art Worldwide and in various edited volumes.

I am currently working on two new projects. In the first I am exploring the question of artistic belatedness in French art of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with a particular emphasis on the work of the Neo-Impressionists. The second is a study of the politics of embodied spectatorship in the work of the 19th-century British painter Ford Madox Brown.


I would be willing to hear from potential DPhil students regarding modern art history.

I would be willing to hear from potential Masters students regarding French and British modernism.

I currently teach:


  Experience of Modernity, 1880-1924


  • Gauguin's Self-Portraits: Egos and Alter-Egos. Exhibition Catalogue.

  • On the Origins of Abstraction: Seurat and the Screening of History

  • On not seeing Tahiti: Gauguin's Noa Noa and the rhetoric of blindness

  • On Seeing and Being Seen: Beholding Class in Ford Madox Brown’s Work

  • Gauguin and the Dream of the Exotic