Shadow Boxes

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Joseph Cornell (12/24/1903-12/29/1972) was the oldest child of four. When Cornell was thirteen, his father passed away of leukemia. His family moved to Douglastown, Long Island. Joseph Cornell was able to attend Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, for a few years with the help from his father previous employer. While at Phillips, the principal noticed that Cornell was extreme shyness and insecurity.

Cornell did not attend college or any art school, but he was well read and sought out culture independently. He regularly attended the theater and the ballet, listened to classical music, and frequently visiting museums and art galleries. One day, Cornell was browsing 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 later became his signature shadow boxes.

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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.

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Cornell was also interested in filmmaking. He worked as an editor in some films. 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 pieceUntitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall)(1945-46).

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In 1940s and 1950s, Cornell continued to show his work, mainly in New York but occasionally in other locations in the U.S. 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.

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In 1950s-1960s, Cornell took time off to take care of his family. He continued working for the next several years. Cornell began making collages again and did not produce any new boxes; although he was in poor health by that time.

Sources from Internet:,


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