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Artists Joseph Cornell
Joseph Cornell Photo

Joseph Cornell

American Sculptor

Movements and Styles: Surrealism, Assemblage

Born: December 24, 1903 - Nyack, New York

Died: December 29, 1972 - Queens, New York

Joseph Cornell Timeline


"Beauty should be shared for it enhances our joys. To explore its mystery is to venture towards the sublime."
Joseph Cornell
"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."
Joseph Cornell
Joseph Cornell
"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."
Joseph Cornell

"Life can have significance even if it appears to be a series of failures."

Joseph Cornell Signature


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.

Key Ideas

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."

Most Important Art

Joseph Cornell Famous Art

Untitled (Tilly-Losch) (c. 1935)

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.
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Joseph Cornell Artworks in Focus:



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.

Early Training

Cornell received no formal art training and did not attend college. In 1929, his family moved to Utopia Parkway in Queens, where he lived for the remainder of his life. Cornell worked as a salesman at Whitman's wool shop on Madison Avenue, a job which he lost in the Depression; however, he was eventually hired as a textile designer at the Traphagen Studio. By 1932, he was also bringing home a small income from sales of his artwork.

Though Cornell was not formally educated, he was extremely well read and sought out culture independently, regularly attending the theater and the ballet, listening to classical music, and frequently visiting museums and art galleries. He perused small Asian shops in Manhattan to see Japanese prints, and it was at one of these shops that Cornell discovered the first boxes he would use for his art, which eventually became his signature shadow boxes.

During his early years, Cornell made collages, and would often buy books just so he could cut out the images inside. He also photocopied from books and magazines at the library and used them in his collages as well.

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Joseph Cornell Biography Continues

Mature Period

In the 1930s, the New York art scene centered on a few small galleries, one being the Julien Levy Gallery where Cornell spent much of his time and encountered many Surrealist poets and painters. Cornell designed the catalogue cover for the gallery's 1932 Surrealist show—the show that launched the Surrealism movement in America—and also had a piece in the exhibition.

Joseph Cornell Biography

During the 1930s, Cornell often used glass bells to cover found objects and in the fall of 1932 he had his first solo exhibit at The Julien Levy Gallery, entitled Minutiae, Glass Bells, Coups d'Oeil, Jouet Surrealistes. In 1936 Cornell was included in The Museum of Modern Art's seminal exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism; Cornell was represented in the show by one of his earliest boxes, Untitled (Soap Bubble Set) (1936), a work later acquired by the Wadsworth Atheneum. From this point on, Cornell regularly exhibited and sold his work, in addition to doing freelance design work for magazines such as Vogue and House & Garden.

Cornell was also interested in filmmaking. He cut and re-edited a Hollywood film East of Borneo(1931) and collaged it into a short, experimental, avant-garde film that he named after the star of the original, Rose Hobart. He also wrote film scenarios such as Monsieur Phot, which was featured in Julien Levy's landmark 1936 volume, Surrealism. Cornell, who was entranced by the technical side of filmmaking and had several books on the subject in his vast library, never lost his interest in the medium, and in the 1950s he made another film composed of edited outtakes of the movie The Wonder Ring. His love of film was evident in his art, and he often included images of movie stars in his boxes, as in his famous piece Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall)(1945-46).

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Cornell continued to show his work, mainly in New York but occasionally in other locations in the U.S. By the 1940s, he was known for his boxes, each of which featured mixed media and collage in a shadow box fronted with glass. His work always maintained a Surrealist quality in its removal of objects from their usual context and paired with other surprising objects, although he ultimately rejected the Surrealist label. His circle of friends included many well-known artists, such as Marcel Duchamp, Robert Motherwell, and Carolee Schneemann.

Cornell did all of his work in the basement of his home, which became increasingly crowded with found objects that he intended to use in his boxes. He assembled more than one hundred and sixty "dossiers," or files containing his scribbled notes and found photographic images on a variety of themes, among them space, birds, ballet, specific actresses, dancers, and films, all organized according to subject. During the later 1950s and 1960s, he produced less as he spent more time caring for his family.

Later Years

Joseph Cornell Photo

Cornell's brother died in 1965, and his mother passed away the following year, leaving him alone. He continued working for the next several years, although he was in poor health by that time. Cornell began making collages again and did not produce any new boxes, although he did tear apart and restructure some of his existing boxes. He kept extensively detailed diaries in which he wrote about his work, the look of certain sunsets, and what he ate for dinner. He continued to write letters to his mother and buy gifts for his brother even after their deaths. Cornell died of heart failure at his home just a few days after his sixty-ninth birthday.


Cornell's influence on postwar American art was immense and varied. His shadow boxes constituted some of the earliest examples of assemblage and later helped inspire both Installation art and the box assemblage works of the Fluxus movement. Cornell's use of preexisting artworks and the visual imagery of popular culture made his work an important forerunner of appropriation art and Pop art, inspiring such as artists as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. Cornell also made a major contribution to the development of cinema; he was described by the film critic J. Hoberman as a "progenitor of American avant-garde film."

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Joseph Cornell
Interactive chart with Joseph Cornell's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart


Max ErnstMax Ernst
Marcel DuchampMarcel Duchamp
Giorgio de ChiricoGiorgio de Chirico
Kurt SchwittersKurt Schwitters


Marcel DuchampMarcel Duchamp
Dorothea TanningDorothea Tanning
Robert MotherwellRobert Motherwell
Susan SontagSusan Sontag


Joseph Cornell
Joseph Cornell
Years Worked: 1920s – early 1970s


Andy WarholAndy Warhol
Robert RauschenbergRobert Rauschenberg
Ray JohnsonRay Johnson
Carolee SchneemannCarolee Schneemann


Carolee SchneemannCarolee Schneemann
Marcel DuchampMarcel Duchamp


Pop ArtPop Art

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Useful Resources on Joseph Cornell






The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.


Utopia Parkway: The Life And Work Of Joseph Cornell Recomended resource

By Deborah Solomon

A Joseph Cornell Album Recomended resource

By Dore Ashton

Joseph Cornell: Master of Dreams

By Diane Waldman

Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell (New York Review Books Classics)

By Charles Simic

More Interesting Books about Joseph Cornell
Pandora's Box: Joseph Cornell Unlocks the Museum of Contemporary Art Collection

June 20, 2011

Joseph Cornell's Cabinets of Wonder at SFMOMA

By Kenneth Baker
San Francisco Chronicle
October 6, 2007

Poetic Theaters, Romantic Fevers Recomended resource

By Holland Cotter
The New York Times
July 13, 2007

Art Review; An Artist Who Assembled A Life in Dozens of Boxes

By Ben Genocchio
The New York Times
July 2, 2006

More Interesting Articles about Joseph Cornell
"Rose Hobart" (1936) Recomended resource

Part 1 (Part 2 available on YouTube)

Gnir Rednow (1955)

Short film by Joseph Cornell & Stan Brakhage

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