Joseph Cornell papers, 1804-1986, bulk 1939-1972

Cornell, Joseph, b. 1903 d. 1972
Sculptor, Assemblage artist, Collagist
Active in Flushing, N.Y.

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 38,398 images.

Funding for the processing and digitization of this collection was provided by the Getty Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art.


Collection size: 24.5 linear ft.

Collection Summary: 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.

Biographical/Historical Note: 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. Some correspondence

Funding for the processing and digitization of this collection was provided by the Getty Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art.

How to Use this Collection

  • Read the Finding Aid for this digitized collection
  • 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.
  • Use of original papers requires an appointment and is limited to the Archives' Washington, D.C., Research Center. Contact Reference Services for more information.
  • For more information on using the Archives’ resources, see the FAQ or Ask Us.

Also in the Archives

Related Materials

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