Scope and Contents
The Joseph Cornell papers measure approximately 24.9 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 (which comprise a series of biographical material). 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-conscious 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.
The Joseph Cornell papers were donated and microfilmed in several installments from 1974 to 1989 by Joseph Cornell's sister, Betty Cornell Benton. Most, but not all, of the correspondence, which was loaned for microfilming in 1974, was subsequently donated in 1989. Additional material was donated in 2004 by the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.
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 this finding aid.
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 Marion Netter (comprised of items received from Cornell). In addition, photographs of Cornell can be found amongst the Hans Namuth photographs and papers. Also found within the Archives is a transcribed interview of Cornell's sister, Elizabeth Cornell Benton, conducted on April 21, 1976 as part of the oral history program.
Funding for the processing and digitization of this collection was provided by the Getty Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art.
Portions of the collection received a preliminary level of processing at some point after donation. The collection was typically microfilmed in the order in which it was donated on reels 1058-1077, 1315, and 2729, except for the last donation by Benton, comprised of the Joseph Cornell Estate Papers and Robert Cornell Papers, and the additional material donated by the Trust, which were never microfilmed. The entire collection was fully processed, arranged, and described by Jennifer Meehan in 2004 and 2005 and the bulk of it was scanned in 2006 and 2009, with funding provided by the Getty Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art.