This internationally renowned modern artist never had professional training. He was first and foremost a collector. He loved to scour old book shops and secondhand stores of new York looking for souvenirs, theatrical memorabilia, old prints and photographs, music scores, and French literature. Joseph Cornell was born on Christmas Eve 1903. He was the oldest of four children born to Helen and Joseph Cornell. He had two sisters, Betty and Helen, and a brother, Robert. Cornell grew up in a grand house in Nyack, New York, a picturesque Victorian town on the Hudson River. Cornell's parents shared their love of music, ballet, and literature with their children. Evenings were spent around the piano, or listening to music on the family Victrola. Trips to New York meant vaudeville shows in Times Square or magic acts at the Hippodrome. His father often returned from his job in Manhattan with new sheet music, silver charms, or a pocket full of candy. But Cornell's childhood was not without sadness. His brother, born with cerebral palsy, was confined to a wheelchair. Joseph, who was extremely attached to Robert, became his principal caretaker.
By collecting and carefully juxtaposing found objects in small, glass-front boxes, Cornell created visual poems in which surface, form, texture, and light play together. Using things we can see, Cornell made boxes about things we cannot see: ideas, memories, fantasies, and dreams. Turned everyday objects into mysterious treasures. In Homage to the Romantic Ballet, plastic ice cubes become jewels when set in a velvet-lined box, souvenirs of a famous ballerina's midnight performance on the frozen Russian steppe. A small glass jar filled with colored sand is transformed into powdered gold from a Mayan temple, preserved in Cornell's Museum. A symbolist, Cornell used the found materials that inhabit his boxes paper birds, clay pipes, clock springs, balls, and rings. A metal spring from a...