Joseph Cornell

Artists Who Collect
Joseph Cornell, The Crystal Cage (Portrait of Berenice) 1943, detail, Case with documents, 39.6 x  50.3 cm. Richard L. Feigen, New York

Cornell’s process of collecting was about keeping things he bought, found and liked. Joseph Cornell collected the source materials for his work, which became artistic creations about his inner thoughts, desires and imagination. Cornell spent most days scavenging for relics in New York junk shops and flea markets. He sorted his purchases into categories and filed them in boxes with his own mementos. He created his art boxes from this archive. People who visited his home said it felt very much like stepping into his art. Inspiration for his boxes came in the form of women with whom Cornell had fallen in love, exotic places and imagined adventures Cornell never took and childhood memories. Cornell also collected his inner thoughts, feelings and fantasies in a diary.

Joseph Cornell was born in 1903 in Nyack, New York. The family moved to the Queens section of New York City after the father died in 1917. As an adult Cornell continued to live with his mother and brother. Without formal training in any field, Cornell began working as a salesman in the textile industry around 1921. At this time, he also began his collection of objects and his art constructions. Cornell was interested in ballet, music and art. In 1931, he saw an exhibition of Surrealist art and later met Surrealist writers and artists at the Julien Levy Gallery. Cornell liked the magical quality of Surrealist art in the 1930s but shied away from the darker revolutionary fantasies of the art movement.

Surrealists explored new imagery and were freer to express their new ideas in the wake of the Dada movement. Dadaists created a stir by voicing cynicism about the world, and by showing in their art the irony and absurdity they saw in the chaos of Europe after World War I. Surrealists also embraced the controversial theories of Sigmund Freud, and his theories about dreams and the subconscious were picked up in the Surrealist methods. The Surrealist artists created dreamlike images, containing realistic subject matter but were simultaneously irrational and fantasy-filled.


  • Surrealism
  • Dada
  • Sigmund Freud
  • Assemblage
  • Collage

Comprehension Questions:

Explain Cornell’s artistic practice:

  1. What did Cornell collect?
  2. How did he make his artwork?
  3. What inspired Cornell?
  4. Explain the connection between Surrealist and Dada art and Cornell's boxes. How are they similar? How are they different?
  5. Interpret one of Cornell’s pieces.