John Klein

Professor of Art History and Archaeology
PhD, Columbia University
research interests:
  • Modern and Contemporary European and American Art
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    contact info:

    office hours:

    • Tuesdays and Thursdays 4:00-5:00 PM (Kemper 215)
    • Email for Appointment

    mailing address:

    • Washington University
    • CB 1189
    • One Brookings Dr.
    • St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
    image of book cover

    The primary focus of John Klein’s research is on European art of the first half of the twentieth century. He is an internationally known specialist in the art of Henri Matisse.

    The primary focus of Professor Klein’s research is on European art of the first half of the twentieth century. He is an internationally known specialist in the art of Henri Matisse. In addition to his first book, Matisse Portraits (Yale 2001), he has published many articles and book chapters on the artist. The subjects of other articles include painting in series from Impressionism to Pop Art, the Fauve portraits of Kees Van Dongen, masking strategies in modern portraiture, and interviews with the Dutch artist Michael Berkhemer published in St. Louis and Amsterdam. His recent book, Matisse and Decoration, published by Yale in 2018, is a comprehensive analysis of the concept of decoration in Matisse’s art, with a particular focus on his commissions for ceramic tile, stained glass, tapestry and other fabrics, and decorative objects and paintings during the last twenty years of his career. Most recently, he contributed the essay “Matisse and Water” to the book accompanying the Saint Louis Art Museum exhibition Matisse and the Sea. Professor Klein is currently working on a book on the history and current status of national portrait collections worldwide.

    Recent courses


    • Introduction to Modern Art, Architecture and Design

    • Modern Sculpture, Canova to Koons, Quinn and Kapoor

    • The Modernist Project: Art in Europe and the U.S., 1905-1980

    • Rethinking Reason: Dada and Surrealism in Europe and the U.S.

    • The Art Museum: History, Theory, Design (co-taught with Eric Mumford, Fox School)


    • More Than Eye Candy: The Decorative Aesthetic in Modernism, 1860-1960

    • Modern War in Art

    • Formalism and its Discontents

    • Rethinking Matisse

    • Who Is That? How Do We Know? Critical Studies in Portraiture, Ancient to Contemporary

    • The Century of Picasso


    Recent Publications 


    Matisse and Decoration (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018).

    Interview: Modern Art Notes podcast, November 8, 2018;

    Review by Karl Buchberg in The Burlington Magazine 162 (May 2020): 464-65.


    Review by Gordon Hughes in H-France Review:


    “Matisse and Water,” in Matisse and the Sea, ed. Simon Kelly (Saint Louis Art Museum, 2024), pp. 39-49.


    Book review: of Matthew Affron, Cécile Debray, and Claudine Grammont, ed., Matisse in the 1930s, in H-France Review 23, no. 202 (December 2023). URL:


    “Is Matisse’s Bathers with a Turtle a Cubist Painting?” Venue 1, no. 1 (2022). URL:


    Book review: of Louise Rogers Lalaurie, Matisse: The Books, in H-France Review 22, no. 85 (May 2022). URL:


    “Matisse and Slow Looking,” for Human Ties blog, Center for the Humanities, Washington University, December 2, 2019. URL:


    “Triumph and Disaster of Collaboration: Henri Matisse and the Gobelins, 1946-49,” in L’Invention partagée / Shared Invention, ed. Laurence Riviale and Jean-François Luneau (Clermont-Ferrand, France: Presses universitaires Blaise-Pascal, 2018), pp. 195-209.


    “Décoration” (on Matisse and decoration), invited article for Tout Matisse, ed. Claudine Grammont (Paris: Éditions Robert Laffont, 2018), pp. 235-39.


    Foreword in brochure for exhibition The Modern Meal: Sustenance Through Ritual, Arthur Greenberg Undergraduate Curatorial Fellowship, Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University, 2017.


    Book review: of Yve-Alain Bois, ed., Matisse in the Collection of the Barnes Foundation, in CAA.Reviews, May 18, 2017. URL:


    “Object or Design? Aesthetic Mobility in Matisse’s Paper Cut-Outs,” in The Challenge of the

    Object / Die Herausforderung des Objekts, Conference Proceedings of the 33rd International Congress of the History of Art (Nuremberg 2012), ed. G. Ulrich Grossman and Petra Krutisch (Nuremberg: Germanisches Nationalmuseum, 2013), pp. 728-29.


    “The Inner Circles of Fauve Portraiture,” in Henri Matisse and the Fauves, ed. Heinz Widauer and Claudine Grammont (Vienna: Albertina Museum, 2013), pp. 284-91. Also published in German.



    Selected recent conference papers, lectures and other presentations


    “Thinking About Matisse: Recent Research, New Directions,” keynote lecture in the opening event for the exhibition Matisse by Matisse, UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing, China (online), July 2023.


    Respondent in session “Faces Across Space and Time: Portraiture and Intermediality in Europe and East Asia,” Association for Art History Annual Conference, London (online), April 2022.


    “Framing Matisse in the US: Showing, Collecting, Dispersing, Consolidating,” in “Crossing Borders, Constructing Canons: ‘Post-Impressionism’ in Britain, America and Beyond,” Courtauld Institute of Art Research Forum, London (online), June 2021.

    “Shchukin as Incubator: Decoration and Patronage,” in “Sergei Shchukin: Biography of a Collection,” Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow, Russia, September 2019. 

    “Sacred Shoebox: Matisse’s Vence Chapel,” the 2018 Marie-Eugénie Milleret Lecture, Assumption College, Worcester, MA, March 2018.

    Respondent in session “Conflict as Cultural Catalyst in Britain,” sponsored by Historians of British Art, College Art Association Annual Meeting, New York, February 2017.

    “Ultimate Method or Ultimate Materials?” in “Looking at Matisse Now: A Symposium,” The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, October 2016.

    “Ranking Decoration,” in session “The Rank of Art,” 34th International Congress of the History of Art, Beijing, China, September 2016.

    “Triumph and Disaster of Collaboration: Henri Matisse and the Gobelins, 1946-49,” in conference “L’invention partagée/Shared Invention,” Aubusson, France, April 2016.

    “Design in Art History Teaching and Research,” in panel on modern design in conjunction with invited lecture by Kristina Wilson, Program in American Culture Studies, Washington University, February 2016.

    “Did Henri Matisse Really Understand Chinese Art?” invited conference paper for the 12th annual Beijing Forum, inaugural session on Art History, “The Diversity of Art History,” Beijing, China, November 2015.

    “Site-Specific but Never Mind That: Matisse’s Lasker and Brody Commissions,” conference in conjunction with the exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, November 2014.

    Interview on Matisse's paper cut-outs with Tyler Green for the podcast Modern Art Notes, in conjunction with the exhibition Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 2014. Web address:

    “Matisse’s Decoration as Postwar Remedy,” Middlebury College, Vermont, April 2014; also delivered at Texas Tech University, Lubbock, April 2013.

    “Is Matisse’s Bathers with a Turtle a Cubist Painting?” Midwest Art History Society session, College Art Association Annual Meeting, Chicago, February 2014.

    “Still Life in Wartime Paris,” in panel “Committed Culture: Politics and Aesthetics During WWII,” in conjunction with exhibitions at the Kemper Art Museum, Washington University, March 2013.

    “Object or Design? Originality in Matisse’s Paper Cut-Outs,” in session “The Object Transformed by the Art Market,” 33rd International Congress of the History of Art, Nuremberg, Germany, July 2012.

    “Repetition/Series/Abstraction: Monet and His Legacies,” Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain, May 2010.

    “Soulages et l’exceptionnalisme américain” (Soulages and American Exceptionalism), in conference “Pierre Soulages,” Centre Georges Pompidou and Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, Paris, January 2010.

    Matisse and Decoration

    Matisse and Decoration

    Between 1935 and his death at midcentury, Henri Matisse (1869–1954) undertook many decorative projects and commissions. These include mural paintings, stained glass, ceramic tiles, lead crystal pieces, carpets, tapestries, fashion fabrics, and accessories—work that has received no significant treatment until now. By presenting a wealth of new insights and unpublished material, including from the artist’s own correspondence, John Klein, an internationally acclaimed specialist in the art of Matisse, offers a richer and more balanced view of Matisse’s ambitions and achievements in the often-neglected later phases of his career.
    Matisse designed many of these decorations in the innovative—and widely admired—medium of the paper cut-out, whose function and significance Klein reevaluates. Matisse and Decoration also opens a window onto the revival and promotion, following World War II, of traditional French decorative arts as part of France’s renewed sense of cultural preeminence. For the first time, the idea of the decorative in Matisse’s work and the actual decorations he designed for specific settings are integrated in one account, amounting to an understanding of this modern master’s work that is simultaneously more nuanced and more comprehensive.

    Matisse Portraits

    Matisse Portraits

    The devotion of Henri Matisse to the human figure led him to make portraits of many different sitters—members of his family, fellow artists, professionals in other fields, patrons, and various others. At key points in his career, he was also an obsessive observer of himself, creating intense series of self-portraits. This pioneering book, with some 200 stunning illustrations, offers the first comprehensive account of Matisse’s activity as a maker of portraits and self-portraits.

    Matisse scholar John Klein goes beyond standard approaches to portraiture that focus on questions of likeness and expression of character. He considers the transaction that produces a portrait—a transaction between the artist and the sitter (even when the sitter is oneself) that is social as much as artistic. Klein investigates the various social contexts of Matisse’s sitters and finds that differences among these contexts produced different kinds of portraits and self-portraits with different goals. This was in part due to the personal and social identity of the sitter, but partly also to Matisse’s self-perception with respect to the sitter and his goal of engaging the genre as a mode of personal expression. Klein also addresses the vexing question of whether depictions of hired models can be considered as portraits and concludes that they lack the social context that is necessary to portraiture. Through the psychological and contextual examination of Matisse’s portraits and self-portraits, Klein throws new light on an important body of work by this influential artist. The author also discusses the portrait practice of some of Matisse’s contemporaries—Picasso, Kirchner, Bonnard, Vallotton, and Boldini—to develop fresh insights into the status of portraiture within twentieth-century art as a whole.