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Joseph Cornell Photo

Joseph Cornell

American Sculptor

Born: December 24, 1903 - Nyack, New York
Died: December 29, 1972 - Queens, New York
Movements and Styles:
"Life can have significance even if it appears to be a series of failures."
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Joseph Cornell Signature
"Beauty should be shared for it enhances our joys. To explore its mystery is to venture towards the sublime."
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Joseph Cornell Signature
"Shadow boxes become poetic theater or settings wherein are metamorphosed the elements of a childhood pastime. The fragile, shimmering globules become the shimmering but more enduring planets—a connotation of moon and tides—the association of water less subtle, as when driftwood pieces make up a proscenium to set off the dazzling white of sea foam and billowy cloud crystallized in a pipe of fancy."
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Joseph Cornell Signature
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Joseph Cornell Signature
"Among the barren wastes of the talking films there occasionally occur passages to remind one again of the profound and suggestive power of the silent film to evoke an ideal world of beauty, to release unsuspected floods of music from the gaze of a human countenance in its prison of silver light."
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Joseph Cornell Signature

Summary of Joseph Cornell

Using the Surrealist technique of unexpected juxtaposition, Joseph Cornell's best-known works are glass-fronted boxes into which he placed and arranged Victorian bric-a-brac, old photographs, dime-store trinkets, and other found elements. Generally referred to as "shadow boxes," the resulting pieces are dream-like miniature tableaux that inspire the viewer to see each component in a new light. Cornell often used the shadow boxes to address recurrent themes of interest such as childhood, space, and birds, and they represented an escape of sorts for their creator, who was famously reclusive. Among the earliest examples of assemblage, the shadow boxes also helped give rise to a host of other Modern and Contemporary American art forms, from Installation art to Fluxus boxes.


  • Cornell's signature art form is the shadow box. Infused with a dream-like aura, the shadow boxes invite the viewer into Cornell's own private, magical world. Alternately known as "memory boxes" or "poetic theaters," the boxes evoke the memories associated with the items contained within, while also containing parallels with, or expressing reverence for, other art forms, such as theater, ballet, and film.
  • Inspired by Marcel Duchamp's readymades, Cornell elevated the found object to the center of his oeuvre and embodied a new paradigm of the artist as collector and archivist. Often purchased on Cornell's frequent visits to New York secondhand shops or cut out from magazines, these objects comprise the primary materials of his art; they not only inhabit Cornell's shadow boxes, they are also key to other aspects of his artistic practice, such as his famous "dossiers," which were organized repositories of visual-documentary source material collected by the artist.
  • Although he was never officially part of the Surrealist movement and came to dismiss the Surrealist label in relation to his own work, Surrealism was a major influence on Cornell, most notably inspiring his embrace of unexpected juxtapositions. Rejecting Surrealism's violent and erotic aspects, Cornell preferred instead what he described as the "white magic" side of Surrealism embodied by Max Ernst. Cornell played a major role in America Surrealism; in 1939, his art was famously described by Salvador Dalí as "the only truly Surrealist work to be found in America."

Biography of Joseph Cornell

Joseph Cornell Photo

Joseph Cornell was born in Nyack, New York, on Christmas Eve of 1903. He was the oldest child of four including two sisters, Elizabeth and Helen, and a brother, Robert, who suffered from cerebral palsy. When Cornell was thirteen, his father died of leukemia after battling the disease for several years. After his father's death, the family moved to Douglastown, Long Island where his mother took on several odd jobs to support her children. With the help of his father's former employer, Joseph Cornell was able to attend Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, for a few years. While at Phillips, the headmaster took notice of Cornell's extreme shyness and insecurity and expressed his concern to Cornell's mother. Cornell seemed to be overly fearful of many things, and he once confided in his sister Elizabeth how frightened he was at the concept of infinity. When he was in his twenties, he learned about Christian Science and became a devout follower of the religion, as he believed it had cured him of recurring stomach ailments.

Important Art by Joseph Cornell

Progression of Art
c. 1935

Untitled (Tilly-Losch)

Tilly-Losch is one of Cornell's many signature shadow boxes: glass-fronted boxes filled with found items carefully arranged in small-scale tableaux. With its dream-like imagery and subject matter that revolves around childhood memory, Tilly-Losch addresses themes that would recur throughout Cornell's oeuvre. It features a cut-out image of a girl suspended by strings against a sky-blue background, hovering above an image of a mountain range as she holds a wooden bead on a string. The piece takes its name from the Viennese actress and dancer Tilly Losch, who lived and worked in the United States, appearing in several Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s. As such, it evokes Cornell's interest in filmmaking and movie stars, both of which would figure largely in his work, while the piece's stage-like setting is a nod to Cornell's love of theater.

Wood, glass, paper, box construction - The Robert Lehman Art Trust, Washington DC


Untitled (Soap Bubble Set)

Made for the 1936 Museum of Modern Art exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism, this work was the first of Cornell's shadow boxes, containing many of the characteristic features of his signature art form. In these works, Cornell used the Surrealist practice of juxtaposing unrelated found objects, in this case, a doll's head, a clay pipe used to make soap bubbles, a bird's egg, a glass, an antique map of the moon, and a print of the leaning tower at Pisa. Some writers have interpreted the piece as a family portrait, with the doll's head "depicting" the artist, the egg symbolizing his mother, the pipe his father, and the four blocks at the top as Cornell and his three siblings. The box was one of numerous works titled Soap Bubble Set, a theme linked by their creator not only with childhood but also with the cosmos.

Wood, glass, plastic, paper, box construction - Wadsworth Atheneum Museum, Hartford


Taglioni's Jewel Casket

In addition to shadow boxes, Cornell created other box works as well, including this piece. Taglioni's Jewel Casket notably lacks the protective glass covering of the shadow boxes and resembles a real jewelry box, with its velvet lining and open lid (from which hangs a rhinestone necklace purchased at a New York Woolworth's dime store) the box seems to beckon to the viewer not only to gaze at but also handle the objects within.

This work, one of dozens of boxes the artist created referencing specific 19th-century ballerinas, reflects Cornell's practice of working in series—appropriate to an artist who liked to collect and categorize. It also reflects Cornell's love of ballet. Among his favorite ballerinas was the acclaimed Italian dancer Marie Taglioni, who according to legend, kept an imitation ice cube in her jewelry box to commemorate dancing in the snow at the behest of a Russian highwayman. The legend is printed on the inside cover of Taglioni's Jewel Casket and referenced in the rows of glass cubes, suggestive of both ice and precious jewels.

Wood box, velvet, glass cubes, glass necklace - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Untitled (Medici Boy)

In addition to combing disparate objects, Cornell sometimes also juxtaposed far-flung eras and locales. The early-15th century and the 20th century come together in Medici Boy. Part of Cornell's Medici Slot Machine series, Medici Boy features repeated renderings of the early Italian Renaissance painter Bernardino Pinturicchio's Portrait of a Boy, within the context of a modern-day slot machine. An image of the boy appears at center, with smaller-scale renderings repeated along the two sides, alongside numbers and letters. The piece reflects some of the ways in which Cornell's oeuvre was a precursor of future innovative artistic developments. Its early use of a reproduction of an existing artwork heralded postmodern appropriation art, while its serial repetition of imagery and combination of "high" and "low" forms anticipate the work of Andy Warhol and Pop art.

Wood, paper, wire, glass, box construction - Estate of Joseph Cornell


Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall)

Evoking a pinball machine, Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall combines Cornell's fascination with Bacall, then at the peak of her stardom, with his childhood memories of New York's penny arcades. Directly inspired by Cornell's dossier on the noted film actress, this piece is essentially a shrine to the movie star, who here appears as an object to be worshipped but never touched, thanks to the protective glass covering. As in Medici Boy, a central photograph of Bacall is flanked by smaller images of her, including scenes of city skyscrapers, perhaps included to refer to Bacall's time living in New York. This top row of images also suggests a filmstrip—further homage to the artist's love of cinema. Some writers have related the piece to the artist's similarly montage-like 1936 film Rose Hobart, named after the film star with whom Cornell was also obsessed, made by snippets from the actress' film East of Borneo in combination with shots from a documentary film of an eclipse.

Wood, paper, glass, box construction - Collection Mr. and Mrs. E. A. Bergman, Chicago


Cassiopeia 1

Cassiopeia 1 is dedicated to another of Cornell's primary interests: outer space. Darker in mood than many of Cornell's other works, the box focuses on the eponymous constellation placed beside an image of Taurus on the right side and, to the upper left, Orion. A white moon-like ball rests on two thin metal bars that are positioned vertically within the walls of the box. The central cosmic image suggests considerable depth, and makes the viewer feel as if she is looking through a window to another world. Created when the health of the artist's mother and brother began to worsen, the piece may be seen in poignant personal terms as a meditation on what lies beyond this world, as well as perhaps an image of the sense of alienation the reclusive artist experienced throughout his life.

Wood, metal, paper, glass, box construction - Estate of Joseph Cornell


Untitled (Oriental Painting of Bird with Cherry Blossoms)

With his mother and brother's worsening health in the 1960s, Cornell's family responsibilities increased and his time for his artwork correspondingly lessened. He returned to collage, which was less physically demanding than the shadow boxes. Most of the present piece is devoted to a bird pursuing an insect; along the bottom are three smaller images, including an outdoor garden structure and an insect stamp. The collage reflects the artist's knowledge of art history, acquired through his trips to New York City art museums. In particular, it evokes the genre of Chinese bird-and-flower painting. The work also reflects the artist's love of nature, particularly birds. Cornell, who created a series of boxes on the aviary theme, reportedly used to leave his windows open and spread birdseed out on his kitchen table to try and lure them into his home.

Paper collage - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC

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Joseph Cornell
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Content compiled and written by Tracy DiTolla

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Joseph Cornell Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Tracy DiTolla
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 21 Jan 2012. Updated and modified regularly
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