Joseph Cornell

born Nyack, NY 1903-died New York City 1972
Media - portrait_image_114968.jpg - 137918
Joseph Cornell, ca. 1940, Joseph Cornell Study Center, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Nyack, New York, United States
New York, New York, United States
  • American

A premier assemblagist who elevated the box to a major art form, Joseph Cornell also was an accomplished collagist and filmmaker, and one of America's most innovative artists. When his sister and brother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. John A. Benton, donated a collection of his works and related documentary material in 1978, the NMAA [now the Smithsonian American Art Museum] established the Joseph Cornell Study Center.

Born on Christmas Eve, 1903, Joseph Cornell was raised in an affluent, closeknit family in Nyack, New York. He attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, as a science major between 1917 and 1921, but did not graduate.  While working as a textile salesman in New York between 1921 and 1931, Cornell began exploring the city and its cultural resources, and converted to Christian Science, thereafter a major influence on his life and work. In 1929, his family moved to Flushing, New York, where he lived until his death on December 29, 1972.

His art has been described as romantic, poetic, lyrical and surrealistic. Self-taught but amazingly sophisticated, he created his first collages, box constructions and experimental films in the 1930s. By 1940, his boxes contained found materials artfully arranged, then collaged and painted to suggest poetic associations inspired by the arts, humanities and sciences.

He believed aesthetic theories were foreign to the origin of his art but said his works were based on everyday experiences, "the beauty of the commonplace." An insatiable collector, he acquired thousands of examples of printed and three-dimensional ephemera—searching the libraries, museums, theaters, book shops and antique fairs in New York and relying on his contacts across the United States and in Europe. With these objects, he created magical relationships by seamlessly combining disparate images.

Cornell was an imaginative and private man who, mingling fantasy and reality, produced works outstanding not only for their originality and craftsmanship but for their complexity and diversity.


Media - 2002.58.35 - SAAM-2002.58.35_1 - 55027
Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination
November 17, 2006February 19, 2007
Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination is a landmark exhibition that expands the critical and public appreciation of Cornell as a modern American master.
Media - 1996.104.55 - SAAM-1996.104.55_1 - 55872
Abstract Drawings
June 14, 2012January 6, 2013
Abstract Drawings presents a selection of forty-six works on paper from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s permanent collection that are rarely on public display.
Media - 1967.129 - SAAM-1967.129_1 - 65164
Artist to Artist
October 1, 2021May 18, 2025
Artist to Artist features paired artworks, each representing two figures whose trajectories intersected at a creatively crucial moment, whether as student and teacher, professional allies, or friends.

Related Posts

Artist Joseph Cornell standing at worktable with materials for his artworks around him
A closer look at Joseph Cornell's work and his continuing influence, even 50 years after his death
Laura Augustin
Curatorial Assistant
A black and white photo of a man sitting looking away from the camera, his artwork in front of him
An archivist looks at the important art and objects in the Joseph Cornell Study Center
Anna Rimel
Detail from a painting. Orange and blue organic shapes on a dark blue background.
On the surprising friendship between artists Yayoi Kusama and Joseph Cornell
A white Christmas with a homemade box.
Joseph Cornell, who was born in 1903 on Christmas Eve, often created handmade objects to give as gifts during the holidays.
Laura Augustin
Curatorial Assistant
Media - 1991.90 - SAAM-1991.90_1 - 55024
Artist Joseph Cornell created works that were inspired by his interest in the Space Age.
Laura Augustin
Curatorial Assistant
Media - 1999.91 - SAAM-1999.91_1 - 51054
Excess is not usually associated with an artist whose lifestyle has been characterized as ascetic and whose art is contained on an intimate scale. Yet Cornell indeed engaged in marvelous excess. Just imagine the contents of his tiny house at the time of his death: easily three thousand books and magazines, a comparable number of record albums and vintage films, enough diaries and letters to now fill more than thirty reels of microfilm, and tens of thousands of examples of ephemera
Media - 2001.39 - SAAM-2001.39_1 - 73440
This past week, the museum's Deputy Director invited me to accompany her to see two newly acquired Joseph Cornell boxes. A real treat. She knew I had written my master's thesis on Cornell and was a long time devotee of the artist.