Use of original papers requires an appointment and is limited to the Archives' Washington, D.C., Research Center.
The Joseph Cornell papers measure approximately 24.5 linear feet and date from 1804 to 1986, with the bulk of the material dating from 1939-1972. The collection documents the life, work, interests, and creative activities of the self-taught artist, who was best known for his shadow box constructions, assemblages, and collages. Papers include correspondence, diaries, source material, notes, writings, photographs, printed material, two- and three-dimensional ephemera, art works, and books, as well as a limited amount of legal and financial records, and some miscellaneous personal and family papers. The collection also includes the papers of his sister, Betty Cornell Benton, relating to the handling of Cornell's estate and the personal papers of his brother, Robert Cornell.
Cornell's correspondence is typically with family, friends, artists, dealers, collectors, galleries, museums, admirers, individuals whom he admired, "helpers," and various charitable institutions. Correspondence generally concerns the creation, exhibition, sale, and reception of Cornell's art work; his "explorations" and other research and collecting activities; his preoccupations with certain individuals and motifs; his usual practices of giving gifts of art work to those he liked or admired and making donations to charities in aid of those less fortunate; and his relationships and shared interests with family, friends, and colleagues. Also found is correspondence between and amongst various other members of the Cornell family, including, most notably, Robert Cornell's letters to his sisters, Elizabeth (typically addressed as Nell) and Helen.
Dating from 1941 to 1972, Cornell's diaries span almost the entirety of his career as an artist, which began in earnest when he left his job at the Traphagen textile studio in 1940 to pursue art full-time and ended with his death in 1972. The diaries record his day-to-day experiences (usually comprising his thoughts, feelings, impressions, and ideas); and reflect on his various art projects (boxes, films, and collages) and creative activities ("explorations," and various other research, collecting, and publishing ventures). They also explore many of the themes and underlying concerns of his art work; and document his intense preoccupations with certain individuals, his wide-ranging interests, and the interconnectedness of his ideas and activities.
Cornell's style of writing in the diaries tends to be stream-of-consciousness with entries being composed of phrases, rather than complete sentences and with the progression of passages being more poetic and associative than either logical or narrative. He tended to compose by hand, occasionally typing up his notes into more formal entries, and also to use abbreviations for oft-repeated words and initials for individuals. At times, his handwriting can be difficult to read, and his references can be difficult to decipher. It was also common practice for him to review or revisit previous entries at various points in time, often making revisions or comments on them with dated annotations in the margins or on the reverse side of a page.
Cornell's source material is largely comprised of files of newspaper and magazine clippings, cutouts, notes, writings, book excerpts, photostats (or stats), prints, postcards, art reproductions, and other printed material. Some files are devoted to people (ballerinas, actresses, singers, artists, and writers) and topics (astronomy, romantic and modern ballet, birds, films, literature, music, plants, and science, among others). Other files relate to specific art works, "explorations," publishing projects, and exhibitions. Source material documents Cornell's preoccupation with certain individuals (past and present), events, subjects, and motifs; the development of some of his major "explorations" and their influence on his various artistic and commercial projects; and his work on certain box constructions and collages, publishing ventures, and exhibition catalogues. Source material also sheds light on Cornell's efforts to gain access to the past; his interest in the symbolism of images and objects; the linkages he found between seemingly unrelated things; and the connections between his many creative endeavors.
Ephemera and artifacts include various objects, mementos, and items of memorabilia, some of which were accumulated by Cornell (in much the same way that he collected his source material) and some of which are of uncertain origin. For Cornell, items such as these were not merely inanimate objects, but were instead evocative of past worlds and capable of bringing the past into the present (an idea which he often expressed in his diaries as the "metaphysique d'ephemera"). He seems to have used some of these items in a layout he designed for Good Housekeeping. Other items may have been used as source material for some of his box constructions.
The collection also houses photographs of Cornell, his family, art work, other artists, and friends, as well as photographs taken by various individuals and publicity photographs from the New York City Ballet. Also found are scattered works of art, including collage fragments and Rorschachs (or ink blot drawings) by Cornell, collages by Cornell's sister, Betty Cornell Benton, on which he collaborated, and a box by Christine Kaufman, which was a gift to Cornell. The books in the collection most likely comprise the remainder of Cornell's library, which was transferred to the Joseph Cornell Study Center, and include some that seem to have belonged to his sister, Betty. Printed material includes various publications and clippings collected by Cornell apart from that which he collected as source material. Writings about Cornell include an article by the poet, Mina Loy, and copies of various theses, presentations, and articles by graduate students in art history received by Benton (who assisted them in their research).
The Joseph Cornell Estate Papers consist of correspondence relating to Betty Cornell Benton's administration of the part of Cornell's estate for which she was responsible and legal documents relating to her various legal disputes with the executors of the estate, as well as a limited amount of printed material, some of which was originally accumulated by Cornell and subsequently shared with Benton, and miscellaneous papers belonging to Benton and their mother, Helen S. Cornell. Estate Papers provide insight on the exhibition and sale of Cornell art works after his death; the disposition of his belongings (including art work, papers, books, records, and source material); and Benton's efforts to foster and safeguard the memory and legacy of Cornell. The Robert Cornell Papers include correspondence, writings, art works, photographs, printed material, and scattered financial and personal records, documenting the full and creative life Robert led despite being confined to a wheelchair. Their inclusion in the collection suggests the family's effort to foster Robert's memory.
Joseph Cornell papers, 1804-1986, bulk 1939-1972. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
The collection has been digitized and is available online via AAA's website. Duplicate material and ephemeral artifacts have not been digitized. Other material not digitized includes printed material such as books, magazines and exhibition catalogs for artists other than Cornell; typically only covers, title pages, and/or relevant pages of these items have been digitized.
Material lent for microfilming, mainly correspondence, that was not subsequently donated is available on microfilm reels 1055-1058.
Funding for the processing and digitization of this collection was provided by the Getty Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art.
The bulk of Cornell's source material resides in the Joseph Cornell Study Center, Smithsonian American Art Museum, along with his library and record collection. Cornell's sister, Betty Cornell Benton, donated a portion of this material directly to SAAM (then known as the National Museum of American Art), occasioning the creation of the Study Center circa 1978. The bulk of the source material and library that she donated to AAA, including approximately 66 linear feet of three-dimensional and non-textual source material and 50 linear feet of books, was transferred to the Study Center in 1994 and 1995.
Originals of loaned material returned to the donor after microfilming include: some unidentified and miscellaneous correspondence; significant correspondence between Joseph Cornell and Helen S. Cornell; significant correspondence between Helen S. Cornell, family members and others; and some of Joseph Cornell's family correspondence and general correspondence from the Robert Cornell papers. The loaned material is available on microfilm reels 1055-1058 but is not described further in the Series Descriptions/Container Listing of the finding aid.
Joseph Cornell source material for boxes, circa 66 linear ft. located at: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Joseph Cornell Study Center, Washington, D.C.
Cornell's personal library, 50 linear ft., consisting of ca. 1,000 books, guidebooks, magazines, maps, a manuscript, and miscellaneous publications, undated and 1722-1967 (some vol. marked or annotated by Cornell) located at: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Joseph Cornell Center, Washington, D.C.
The Archives holds several collections of different provenance that relate to Joseph Cornell, including the small collections of Allison Delarue (comprised of two letters from Cornell, available on reel 2803), Muriel Streeter Schwartz (comprised of two letters from Cornell, available on reel 4283), Wayne Andrews (comprised of letters from Cornell and printed material), and M
Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) was an assemblagist, collagist, and filmmaker from Flushing, N.Y. Cornell never studied art formally. He became interested in surrealism upon seeing an exhibition at Julien Levy Gallery, 1931; Levy subsequently exhibited Cornell's work. He is most notable for his constructions in small boxes.
Correspondence was lent for microfilming 1974 by Cornell's sister, Elizabeth Benton; she subsequently donated it in 1989. The remainder of the material was donated 1974-1989 and in 2004 by the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation via Richard M. Ader. Also donated were ca. 66 linear ft. of source material used by Cornell in his work, in the form of objects and printed material; this was transfered to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Joseph Cornell Study Center, in 1994. Cornell's annotated library was also transfered to the Cornell Center in March 1995.
The papers of Joseph Cornell were digitized in 2005 and 2009 by the Archives of American Art. The papers have been scanned in their entirety, and total 38,643 images.
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 750 9th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001