Elizabeth C. Childs

Elizabeth C. Childs

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

contact info:

office hours:

  • Sabbatical 2023-2024

mailing address:

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

​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.