Joseph Cornell

Eumenis Megalopoulos | Jul 4, 2023

Table of Content


Joseph Cornell (Nyack, Dec. 24, 1903 - Dec. 29, 1972) was an American artist, sculptor but above all a pioneer of assemblage, experimental filmmaking and found footage; although he never "officially" embraced the movement, he is considered the most important American exponent of Surrealism.

Joseph Cornell was born in Nyack on December 24, 1903, to Joseph Cornell and Helen Ten Broeck Storms, the first of four children along with Elizabeth, Helen and Robert, who suffered from cerebral palsy, to whom the artist was always very close. He devoted his life to caring for his younger brother Robert, who lived with cerebral palsy, which was another factor in his lack of relationships. At some point in 1920, he read the writings of Mary Baker Eddy, including Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. Cornell considered this work by Eddy to be among the most important books ever published since the Bible, and he permanently became a follower of Christian Scientism.The Cornells were an affluent family of Dutch descent with a passion for art; his mother, Helen, even wrote a subject for a film.

The year 1917 marked a decisive turning point in Cornell's life: with the death of his father, who was ill with leukemia, he moved to Massachusetts where he enrolled in the faculty of science and Romance languages, but the family soon began to have financial problems, and after just two years Cornell was forced to abandon his studies.

Back in New York, Cornell found work in the offices of a textile factory; from 1921 he began a business as a door-to-door salesman that would last until 1931. It was this employment that sparked in him an interest in collecting: through door-to-door selling he in fact had the opportunity to roam the city and thus began to recover objects of all kinds, from records to copies of old films to letters, anchors and magazines.

1931 was the time of his meeting with Julian Levy, an art gallery owner, who was impressed after seeing some of his works and suggested that he exhibit them at the first Surrealist exhibition held in New York in 1932.

Subsequently, his output increased through his approach to other arts: he worked as a freelance designer for Vogue, designed textiles, and approached cinema, which he had always been passionate about, with the writing of a screenplay, Monsieur Phot, and the editing of Rose Hobart, his first film screened in 1936.

The 1950s are Cornell's most productive years to the point that he is forced to hire collaborators to help him with his work. He engaged in some correspondence with poet Marianne Moore (1877-1972), to whom he was linked by a common attention to the details of nature. Cornell by this time knew all the contemporary artists but continued to lead a private life in "Utopia Parkaway," the house purchased in Bayside in '29 by his family, where he lived until his death in 1972 from a heart attack.

The last ten years of his life saw a sharp decline in artistic output, yet his reputation grew considerably both in America and abroad. His last words before his death to his sister over the phone were, "I wish I hadn't been so secretive."

Sculpture and assemblage

The production most often remembered about Cornell is that relating to "the boxes" (shadow boxes).

These consisted of a wooden box, in fact, closed by glass inside which the same "relics" that were part of his mammoth personal collection were assembled. The assembly criteria were somewhat random, in fact he believed that objects taken from the most disparate corners of the city and composed together could result in a work of art.

The city for him had an infinite number of interesting objects in an infinite number of places, his task was to make connections; his work, as he calls it, "is just the natural consequence of my love for the city." Cornell fits within Modernism through the reconstruction of a personal world from fragments of a world rediscovered through wandering the New York streets.

Cornell never frequented the circle of the Surrealists and Dadaists who were his contemporaries, but that is not to say that his poetics is very far removed from them; chance in his work always plays a key role, he is a co-author but submitting to chance, for Cornell, is useful in revealing the self and its obsessions, and therein lies the distance from the two aforementioned currents.

Experimental Cinematography

Rose Hobart, also known as Ourang or White Captive, is the first film made by Joseph Cornell. It is a 19-minute short film and is a re-editing of the film East of Borneo (1931, directed by George Melford). The title is the name of the star of the original film, Rose Hobart, whom Cornell loved dearly. Cornell slows the projection speed from 24 frames per second to 16, introduces as the only background music a recording of Brazilian music, decides to take fragments from the film that see precisely Rose Hobart framed and to color them blue using the imbibition technique to give that nocturnal effect typical of silent cinema, creating from a genre film a fascinating if mysterious dreamlike portrait of a woman. Many would later follow suit: Lewis Khlar with 1987's Her Fragrant Emulsion and Gianfranco Baruchello and Alberto Grifi with 1965's La verifica incerta (Disperse Exclamatory Phase), for which the two authors were openly inspired by Cornell's work. Cornell's film was screened in 1936 at Julian Levy's New York City Gallery where an episode occurred that greatly conditioned the author's will regarding the circulation of his production: once in the theater, Salvador Dalí stood up screaming and claiming that Cornell had stolen the idea from his mind.

Although he was not intent on circulating these materials, the production continued until the artist's death. In creating his works, Cornell edited together images and clips of old Hollywood films found during his tours being guided only by the emotion suggested by the images in front of him. The scenes are interrupted, we do not know what the actors are saying or to whom, we only remember the images.


  1. Joseph Cornell
  2. Joseph Cornell
  3. ^ Blair, Lindsay (June 1, 2013). Joseph Cornell's Vision of Spiritual Order. Reaktion Books. ISBN 9781780231600 – via Google Books.
  4. ^ "Nyack Sketch Log: A House Haunted by Art". Nyack News and Views. 26 August 2014.
  5. ^ Cohan, James H.; Greenberg, Arthur M. (April 19, 1982). Exploring Joseph Cornell's Visual Poetry: Washington University Gallery of Art, St. Louis, Missouri, April 9-May 9, 1982. Wu Gallery of Art. ISBN 9780936316031 – via Google Books.
  6. ^ Charyn, Jerome (February 22, 2016). A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century. Bellevue Literary Press. ISBN 9781934137994 – via Google Books.
  7. ^ Andreae, Christopher, The Christian Science Monitor, "Joseph Cornell's Alluring Boxes", su URL consultato il 29/04/2015.
  8. Cita en
  9. Maïten Bouisset, in "Beaux-Arts magazine", n°67, avril 1989, p. 96
  10. Maïten Bouisset, op. cit.
  11. À Long Island. La rue portait le nom d'Utopia Parkway. Maïten Bousset, op. cit.
  12. Reproduction dans Beaux-Arts magazine n° 295, janvier 2009, p. 114.

Please Disable Ddblocker

We are sorry, but it looks like you have an dblocker enabled.

Our only way to maintain this website is by serving a minimum ammount of ads

Please disable your adblocker in order to continue.

Dafato needs your help!

Dafato is a non-profit website that aims to record and present historical events without bias.

The continuous and uninterrupted operation of the site relies on donations from generous readers like you.

Your donation, no matter the size will help to continue providing articles to readers like you.

Will you consider making a donation today?