They Say the Owl is a Baker’s Daughter” Ophelia

Media - 1991.155.335 - SAAM-1991.155.335_1 - 76480
Copied Joseph Cornell, "They Say the Owl is a Baker's Daughter" Ophelia, 1971, collage with ink and pencil on paperboard, 12 in. x 9 18 in. (30.623.2 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, 1991.155.335

Artwork Details

They Say the Owl is a Baker’s Daughter” Ophelia
Not on view
12 in. x 9 18 in. (30.623.2 cm)
on verso in pencil: top left to top right: Betsy 1/15/71 fixed 5/17/71 gogol + snakes top right to bottom right: peare-madness - Diary + how (over) "the baker's daughter" (via Ophelia) upper left to upper right: "the say the owl is a baker's daughter" Ophelia Hamlet (mad scene) lower left to center left: sur le nom de Betsy
Credit Line
Gift of The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation
Mediums Description
collage with ink and pencil on paperboard
  • Nonrepresentational
  • Abstract
Object Number

Artwork Description

Toward the end of his life, Joseph Cornell created deeply personal and enigmatic drawings reminiscent of Rorschach ink blots, which became very popular in the 1960s as psychological tests. Beginning with a suggestive drawing in ink on paper, the artist folded the paper so that the wet image transferred to the opposite half of the paper, forming a symmetrical image. He then embellished the drawing with lines or collage elements to create composition, suggested to him by the resulting forms.
Sometimes the image suggested an association from which Cornell derived a title for the work and sometimes he appears to have had a subject in mind before making the image. “They say the owl is a baker’s daughter” is one of Ophelia’s lines in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It refers to a popular legend in which Christ transforms a baker’s daughter into an owl after she has denied him a piece of bread. The owl, also a symbol of night, death, and virginity, often appears in Cornell’s work.

Abstract Drawings, 2012