About This Artwork

Joseph Cornell
American, 1903–1972

Nouveaux Contes de Fées (New Fairy Tales), 1948

Box construction
12 5/8 x 10 1/4 x 5 7/8 in.
Inscribed, upper right and left: NOUVEAUX CONTES DE FÉES (printed)

Lindy and Edwin Bergman Joseph Cornell Collection, 1982.1857

Art © The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

This box, like so many of Cornell’s constructions, elicits multiple associations. The glazed front of the box is in fact a hinged door, opening like a medicine cabinet or an old-fashioned bookcase. The neat, gridlike compartments contain tiny boxes, which are like miniature keepsake containers or perhaps jewel boxes, an impression enhanced by the pink velvet interior. Each is pasted over with pages cut from a French book or journal, whose engraved illustrations and typeface both suggest nineteenth-century text. We are invited to link these now yellowing fragments of the text to the title Nouveaux Contes de fees, which is pasted in the top left and right corners of the door frame, invoking the title page in a book of fairy tales. The box was designed as a kind of toy to be played with, for the little boxes inside can be rearranged at will. Cornell’s choice of a French publication with which to cover them, together with the images, evokes French novels, which at the time to which the illustrations belong could signify the illicit and the erotic, and were considered unsuitable reading for young ladies. Although this is belied by the title, an aura of the secretive remains. This work is most closely related to Cornell‘s Untitled (Paul and Virginia) of c. 1946–48 (Chicago, Bergman family; see New York 1980-82, pl. IX), which similarly combines engravings and pages of text with mysterious stacks of tiny, closed boxes. In the latter, Cornell used pages from an English edition of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie (1789) together with engravings that originally accompanied the Curmer edition of 1838. This hugely successful tragic love story of the Romantic era may well have had an additional appeal for Cornell because it was set in the New world. The austere, grid structure of Nouveaux Contes de fees, which is emphasized by the simple, geometric shapes of the boxes and is related to Cornell’s Dovecote series, is in striking contrast to the romantic and rather sugary images. — Entry, Dawn Ades, Surrealist Art: The Lindy and Edwin Bergman Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, 1997, p.48-49.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

New York, Hugo Gallery, La Lanterne Magique du Ballet Romantique of Joseph Cornell, 1949, no cat.

The Hague, Haags Gemeentemuseum, Nieuwe Realisten, 1964, no. 40 (ill.), as Poison Boxes.

New York 1967, no cat. nos., pp. 19, 23, 35 (ill.), as Nouveaux Contes de fées (Poison Box).

Chicago 1973-74, no cat. nos., n. pag., as Nouveaux Contes de fées (Poison Box).

Houston, Rice University, Institute for the Arts, Joseph Cornell, 1977, no cat.

New York 1980-82, no. 106 (ill.), as Untitled (Nouveaux Contes de fées) (New York and Chicago only).

Publication History

Harold Rosenberg, “The Art World: Object Poems,” New Yorker 43 (June 3, 1967), p. 112.

Harold Rosenberg, Artworks and Packages, New York, 1969, pp. 75-76 (ill.).

Henri Coulonges, “Cornell et ses oeuvres fragiles connaissent subitement une faveur grandissante,” Connaissance des arts 262 (Dec. 1973), p. 131 (ill.), as Nouveaux Contes de fées (Boîte à poison).

Katherine Kuh, “ Joseph Cornell: In Pursuit of Poetry,” Saturday Review 2, 25 (Sept. 6, 1975), pp. 37 (ill.), 39, as Poison Box.

Diane Waldman, Joseph Cornell, 1977, pl. 76 and p. 26, as Nouveaux Contes de fées (Poison Box).

Saturday Review 1980, p. 58 (photo of Bergman home).

A. M. Hammacher, Phantoms of the Imagination: Fantasy in Art and Literature from Blake to Dalí, New York, 1981, p. 344 and fig. 323, as Nouveaux Contes de fées (Poison Box).

U. of C. Magazine 1982, p. 25 (photo of Bergman home).

Rosalind Krauss, “Grids,” October 9 (Summer 1979), p. 62 (ill.).

Dickran Tashjian, Joseph Cornell: Gifts of Desire, Miami Beach, FL 1992, p. 27 and pl. 6, as Nouveaux Contes de fees (Poison Box).

Ownership History

Eleanor Ward, New York, by 1964; Stable Gallery, New York; sold to Lindy and Edwin Bergman, Chicago, 1966; given to the Art Institute, 1982.

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