Elizabeth C. Childs

Etta and Mark Steinberg Professor of Art History
PhD, Columbia University
research interests:
  • Modern Art
  • 19th and 20th Century European Modernism
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    • Sabbatical 2023-2024

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    • Washington University
    • CB 1189
    • One Brookings Dr.
    • St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
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    ​Professor Childs’ field is modern art, encompassing late eighteenth- through early twentieth-century European art and visual culture, broadly defined. She is a specialist in European avant-garde modernism. 

    Professor Childs’s field is modern art, encompassing late eighteenth- through early twentieth-century European art and visual culture, broadly defined. She is a specialist in European avant-garde modernism (particularly painting, photography and prints). She has published on key figures including Daumier, Degas, Van Gogh, and Gauguin, as well as on selected chapters of American art, including the photography of exploration, the earth works of Robert Smithson, and the exoticism of John La Farge and historian Henry Adams. In her work on Gauguin, she has focused on Gauguin’s relationship to indigenous Tahitian and Marquesan culture as well as to colonial society, his work as a writer, his uses of photography, his interests in world religions and theosophy, and his construction of a primitivist identity. Future work includes a monograph on the late work and writings of that artist.

    In her courses, Prof. Childs considers art in relation to its political, social and ideological cultures, with particular interest in art’s intersection with histories of colonialism, imperialism, tourism, anthropology and exploration. She is broadly interested in exoticism, orientalism and japonisme in both fine and popular arts, and their relationship to the study of gender and race; theories and practices of landscape painting and photography; modern art produced in cross-cultural and transnational contexts; and the collection, circulation and interpretation of non-western objects in the Euro-American art world. She is also interested in the relationship between art, science and cultural geography; the history of art censorship; the history of women artists and female agency within the art world; and the role of humor in visual art, particularly in caricature.

    Professor Childs majored in art history and anthropology at Wake Forest University, and then studied at the University of Edinburgh, and at Columbia University (Ph.D., 1989), where she wrote her dissertation on exoticism in the political caricature of Honoré Daumier. She has held curatorial and education positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum and the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation. Her first faculty position was at the State University of New York at Purchase (1987-1992); she also held a Florence Gould Foundation Fellowship at Princeton University to study French painting and photography. Professor Childs arrived at Washington University in 1993. Her research has since been supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for University Teachers, an Elsa Mellon Bruce Senior Visiting Fellowship at CASVA at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and by several Faculty Research Grants at Washington University. Professor Childs’s teaching was honored when she was awarded the Council of Students in Arts and Sciences Excellence in Teaching Award in both 1996 and 2004.  In 2008, she received a Distinguished Faculty award from the university at Founder’s Day.  In both 2005 and 2016 she was honored to receive an Outstanding Graduate Mentor Award, from the Graduate Student Senate of Arts and Sciences.

    She especially enjoys visiting museum collections with her students, and has taken undergraduates and graduates alike regularly on field trips to Washington D.C., Chicago and Kansas City. Most of her courses include required visits to and assignments based on research in local museums, notably the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, and the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. In the fall of 2019, Professor Childs and her students in the travel seminar "Paul Gauguin in Context" visited London to further study the artist's work and life. 


    Selected Publications

    Book review of Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade by Simon Kelly and Esther Bell for the College Art Association. Read the review here. 

    Dr. Childs is quoted and referenced in the article, "Why Is the Art World Divided over Gauguin's Legacy?"  The article can be accessed here.

    Dr. Childs recently wrote a spotlight essay for the Kemper Art Museum about Paul Gauguin.  The essay can be accessed here

    Curator and author, Spectacle and Leisure: Degas to Mucha Kemper Art Museum, 2017. Additional essays by Colin Burnet, et al.

    "Taking back Tehe'amana: Feminist Interventions in Gauguin's Legacy," in Norma Broude, ed. Gauguin's Challenge: New Perspectives After Postmodernism, Bloomsbury Academic Press, New York, 2018. 229-249

    See Dr. Childs deliver her lecture, "From Paris to Tahiti: Paul Gauguin's Innovative Prints" at Yale University here (spring 2016).

    "Te Fenua Enata dans le regard de l'avant-garde parisienne: Les Marquises et Paul Gauguin," in Carol Ivory, ed. Mata Hoata (Actes Sud, Aix, for the Musée Quai Branly, Paris, 2016).

    "Second Encounters in the South Seas: Revisiting the Shores of Cook and Bougainville in the Art of Gauguin, La Farge and Barnfield," in Tricia Cusack, ed. Framing the Ocean, 1700 to the Present: Envisaging the Sea as Social Space (Ashgate, Burlington, 2015).

    "Gauguin and Sculpture: The Art of the 'Ultra-Sauvage,'" in Starr Figura, ed. Gauguin: Metamorphoses (Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2014).

    "St. Louis and Arts Philanthropy at Midcentury: The Case of Etta Steinberg," online article for the Kemper Art Museum.  Access article here. 

    Vanishing Paradise: Art and Exoticism in Colonial Tahiti, 1880-1901 (University of California Press, 2013).

    “Exoticisms in the South Seas: John La Farge and Henry Adams encounter the Pacific,” and “Common Ground: La Farge and Gauguin in Tahiti,” in John La Farge’s Other Paradise: Voyages in the South Seas, 1890-91 (New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery and Yale University Press, 2010).

    Daumier and Exoticism: Satirizing the French and the Foreign (Peter Lang Press, 2004).

    "Catholicism and the Modern Mind: The Painter as Writer in Late Career," in Gauguin: Tahiti, (Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 2004), pp. 223-242.

    "Gauguin as Author: Writing the Studio of the Tropics," The Van Gogh Museum Journal, 2003, pp. 70-87.

    "Eden's Other: Gauguin and the ethnographic grotesque," in Frances Connelly, ed. The Grotesque and Modern Art, (Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 175-192.

    "Seeking the Studio of the South: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Avant-Garde Identity," in Cornelia Homburg, ed. Vincent Van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard (Rizzoli Press with the Saint Louis Art Museum, 2001), pp. 113-152.

    "The Colonial Lens: Gauguin, Primitivism, and Photography in the fin-de-siècle," in Lynda Jessup, ed. Antimodernism and Artistic Experience: Policing the Boundaries of Modernity (University of Toronto Press, 2001), pp. 50-70.

    Three essays [on Degas as photographer, on Gauguin’s use of colonial photographs, and on the idea of a photographic muse for painters of modernism] in Dorothy Kosinski, and curatorial consultant for The Artist and the Camera: Degas to Picasso (Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 24-33; 70-87; 116-141.

    Suspended License: Censorship and the Visual Arts, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997).

    "Time’s Profile: John Wesley Powell, Geology and Art at the Grand Canyon, 1869-1882,” American Art, vol. 10, no. 2 (Spring 1996): 7-36.

    “Big Trouble: Daumier, Gargantua and the Censorship of Political Caricature,” Art Journal, vol. 51 (Spring 1992): 26-37.

    Femmes d’esprit: Women in the Caricature of Honoré Daumier, co-edited and co-curated with Kristen Powell.  (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1990).  

    Honoré Daumier: A Thematic Guide to the Oeuvre, edited, with Louis Provost, (Garland Press, 1989).

    Handbook to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, (co-authored with L. Flint), Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1986 (author of 50 entries).

    Her book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book ReviewMaster DrawingsWomen's Art Journal, and Pacific Studies. In recent years, she has lectured or given papers at New York University, the University of North Carolina, the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, The College Art Association meetings, and The Society for French Historical Studies meetings, to name a few.

    In September of 2016, Dr. Childs participated on a panel of experts at a symposium titled, “On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and his Illness.”  The meeting was held at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

    Paradise Camp by Yuki Kihara

    Paradise Camp by Yuki Kihara

    Interdisciplinary artist Yuki Kihara is the first Pasifika and first Fa'afafine artist to be presented by New Zealand at the prestigious 59th International Art Exhibition — La Biennale di Venezia, with a ground-breaking exhibition of new work that addresses some of the most pressing issues of our time. Kihara's work interrogates and dismantles gender roles, consumerism, (mis)representation, and colonial legacies in the Pacific. Edited by Natalie King, who has commissioned provocative essays from contributors from around the world, Paradise Camp contextualizes Kihara’s lifetime of works, which puncture and expose queer and question dominant narratives, turning so-called history on its head.

    Gaugin: Portraits

    Gaugin: Portraits

    The first in-depth investigation of Gauguin’s portraits, revealing how the artist expanded the possibilities of the genre in new and exciting ways

    Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) broke with accepted conventions and challenged audiences to expand their understanding of visual expression. Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in his portraits, a genre he remained engaged with throughout all phases of his career. Bringing together more than 60 of Gauguin’s portraits in a wide variety of media that includes painting, works on paper, and sculpture, this handsomely illustrated volume is the first focused investigation of the multifaceted ways the artist approached the subject.

    Essays by a group of international experts consider how the artist’s conception of portraiture evolved as he moved between Brittany and Polynesia. They also examine how Gauguin infused his work with symbolic meaning by taking on different roles like the Christ figure and the savage in his self-portraits and by placing his models in suggestive settings with alluring attributes. This welcome addition to the scholarship on one of the 19th century’s most innovative and controversial artists reveals fascinating insights into the crucial role that portraiture played in Gauguin’s overall artistic practice.

    Cornelia Homburg is guest curator at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Christopher Riopelle is curator of post-1800 paintings at the National Gallery, London.

    Spectacle and Leisure in Paris: Degas to Mucha

    Spectacle and Leisure in Paris: Degas to Mucha

    Through the lens of seven scholars, this book examines fine art and commercial design as they both reflected and helped create the vibrant culture of public spectacle in late nineteenth-century Paris. Posters and prints circulated across the city, as the new art form of cinema flourished, all part of a diverse urban climate of leisure that was particularly French. These rich visual materials served to promote the careers and talents of such celebrities as Jane Avril, Loïe Fuller, and Sarah Bernhardt. Alphonse Mucha and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec developed the potential of color lithography to meet the demands of these stars, while fine artists ranging from Edgar Degas and Édouard Manet to Pablo Picasso and Édouard Vuillard focused on such spectacles as the racetrack, ballet, café-concert, theater, and opera, asserting them as defining elements of Parisian modernity in this image-saturated milieu.

    Gauguin: Metamorphoses

    Gauguin: Metamorphoses

    Gauguin: Metamorphoses explores the remarkable relationship between Paul Gauguin’s rare and extraordinary prints and transfer drawings, and his better-known paintings and sculptures in wood and ceramic. Created in several discrete bursts of activity from 1889 until his death in 1903, these remarkable works on paper reflect Gauguin’s experiments with a range of media, from radically "primitive" woodcuts that extend from the sculptural gouging of his carved wood reliefs, to jewel-like watercolor monotypes and large mysterious transfer drawings. Gauguin’s creative process often involved repeating and recombining key motifs from one image to another, allowing them to metamorphose over time and across mediums. Printmaking in particular provided him with many new and fertile possibilities for transposing his imagery. Though Gauguin is best known as a pioneer of modernist painting, this publication reveals a lesser-known but arguably even more innovative aspect of his practice. Richly illustrated with more than 200 works, Gauguin: Metamorphoses explores the artist’s radically experimental approach to techniques and demonstrates how his engagement with media other than painting--including sculpture, printmaking and drawing--ignited his creativity.

    Daumier and Exoticism

    Daumier and Exoticism

    Best known as a satirist of Parisian politics and daily life, Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) was a prolific caricaturist. This book is the first to examine the role of exoticism in his art, and to offer a detailed history of the journal Le Charivari in which the lithographs appeared. These satires of China, Haiti, the United States, Africa, and the Middle East not only target the theater of international politics, but also draw on a broad range of physical stereotypes supported by contemporary ideas about race and cultural difference. In an art of comic inversion, Daumier used the exotic to expose the foibles and pretensions of the Parisian bourgeoisie. A pacifist and a Republican, Daumier also satirized the non-European world in order to covertly attack the imperialism of Napoléon III in an age of press censorship. Idealistic as well as pragmatic, he used humor to stage political critique as well as to envision a more unified and compassionate world.

    Vanishing Paradise: Art and Exoticism in Colonial Tahiti

    Vanishing Paradise: Art and Exoticism in Colonial Tahiti

    In the late nineteenth century Tahiti embodied Western ideas of an earthly Paradise, a primitive utopia distant geographically and culturally from the Gilded Age or Belle Epoque. Stimulated by fin de siècle longings for the exotic, a few adventurous artists sought out this Eden on the South Seas—but what they found did not always live up to the Eden of their imagination. Bringing three of these figures together in comparative perspective for the first time, Vanishing Paradise offers a fresh take on the modernist primitivism of the French painter Paul Gauguin, the nostalgic exoticism of the American John LaFarge, and the elite tourism of the American writer Henry Adams. Drawing on archives throughout Europe, America, and the South Pacific, Childs explores how these artists, lured by romantic ideas about travel and exploration, wrestled with the elusiveness of paradise and portrayed colonial Tahiti in ways both mythic and modern.

    John La Farge's Second Paradise

    John La Farge's Second Paradise

    In 1890, John La Farge (1835–1910) and his close friend, historian Henry Adams, embarked on a journey to the islands of the South Pacific, where the artist experienced a period of great creative output. This book showcases many of the most important oils, watercolors, and sketches to come out of La Farge’s two-year voyage to the islands of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and is the first to place the artist’s South Seas work in the broader context of exotic travel by artists and writers of the 19th century.

    The essays in John La Farge’s Second Paradise explore the artist’s reemergence as a plein air landscape painter, his use of the sketchbook, and his late decorative work, which was reinvigorated by the experience of light and color he discovered in the South Seas. Further discussions examine the prevailing notions of tropical paradise perpetuated since Captain Cook’s “discovery” of Polynesia in the late 18th century, and offer the first extended comparison of the careers and art of La Farge and Paul Gauguin, who arrived in Tahiti only days after La Farge left in 1891. Featuring many previously unpublished works, this beautiful book is a major contribution to the study of La Farge’s life and art.

    Vincent Van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard

    Vincent Van Gogh and the Painters of the Petit Boulevard

    Dozens of reproductions highlight the work of Parisian avant-garde artists of the late 1880s and early 1890s, including Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Emile Bernard, and Georges Seurat, providing a fresh look at this influential generation of artists and the impact of their work on the development of modern art.

    Femmes d'Esprit

    Femmes d'Esprit

    Catalog of an exhibition held at the Christian A. Johnson Memorial Gallery, Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vt., June 16-July 15, 1990, and at the Neuberger Museum, State University of New York at Purchase, Purchase, N.Y., Sept. 9-Dec. 10, 1990