Letters from a Ballerina: Correspondence from Tamara Toumanova in the Joseph Cornell Papers

By the Archives
July 30, 2015
Portion of a costume sent to Joseph Cornell by Tamara Toumanova

Curatorial intern Cecelia Vetter looks at the friendship between artist Joseph Cornell and ballerina Tamara Toumanova through correspondence found in the artist’s papers.

Letter to Joseph Cornell from Tamara Toumanova
Tamara Toumanova, Beverly Hills, Calif. letter to Joseph Cornell, Flushing, N.Y., 1942 May 16. Joseph Cornell papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Scraps of fabric from costumes
Toumanova enclosed scraps of fabric from her costumes for "Capriccio," "Fire Bird" and "Giselle," as well as a pressed rose from her garden. Tamara Toumanova, Beverly Hills, Calif. letter to Joseph Cornell, Flushing, N.Y., 1942 May 16. Joseph Cornell papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

This summer, as an intern with the Archives of American Art, I conducted research for the exhibition, Little Black Books: Address books from the Archives of American Art, opening August 7 in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery at the Smithsonian’s Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture. While researching I came across correspondence from ballerina Tamara Toumanova to artist Joseph Cornell. The collection of letters, which date from 1941 to 1945 and then a single telegram in 1967, show a friendship between Cornell and Toumanova that lasted even as the ballerina moved across the country. In the letters, Toumanova often thanked Cornell for gifts of artwork he sent her and in return she sent him pieces of her costumes to be added to his shadow boxes. Inspired by Toumanova and other ballerinas he befriended, Cornell made many ballet-themed collages and shadow boxes. Though Joseph Cornell’s friends moved throughout the country, Cornell lived with his brother Robert, who had cerebral palsy, and he rarely left New York City. Despite his limited travel, the artist maintained steady contact through letters and postcards with friends, such as Toumanova.

In Toumanova’s earliest letter, dated July 1941, the ballerina, living in New York City, said that she sent Cornell a ticket to her upcoming performance of Swan Lake and asked that he visit her backstage after the show. Her invitation suggests a close friendship with Cornell, one that I envisioned as a budding flirtation the first time I read the letter, though I now know it is believed that Cornell held one-sided attractions for Toumanova and other ballerinas. Whatever the nature of their relationship, Cornell and Toumanova stayed in contact, even as she moved to Chicago and then Los Angeles.

Tamara Toumanova's wedding announcement
Announcement of Tamara Toumanova's wedding sent to Joseph Cornell, 1944. Joseph Cornell papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

As I pored over the letters between Toumanova and Cornell, I imagined his admiration for her, despite their physical distance. The letters, in which Toumanova asked that Cornell write to her and to please not forget her, only fueled the relationship I imagined them having.

But, near the bottom of the pile of letters, one piece of mail shattered my fantasy of Cornell and his ballerina. In 1944, while living in Los Angeles, Toumanova sent Cornell her wedding announcement; she was to marry film producer Casey Robinson in July of that year, almost exactly three years after she invited Cornell to her Swan Lake performance.

After Toumanova sent the wedding announcement, the tone of correspondence changes. Toumanova’s subsequent letters consisted of Christmas cards sending warm wishes, but lacked the length of personal regards found in earlier letters. After 1945, the cross-country correspondence ends in the Cornell papers held by the Archives.

Only in 1967, more than twenty years later, Cornell received a telegram from his once admired ballerina, in which she congratulated him on his success for having his art featured in Life magazine, noting a Swan Lake piece dedicated to her.

Though the collection only holds one side of the conversation, and I can only guess the nature of Toumanova and Cornell’s friendship, exploring the documents preserved in the Archives of American Art created an adventure into the personal life of an artist.


Cecelia Vetter was a curatorial intern with the Archives of American Art during the summer of 2015. She is studying art history at Washington University in St. Louis.