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Untitled (Hôtel de l'Etoile)

A work made of box construction.
© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York

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  • A work made of box construction.




Joseph Cornell
American, 1903–1972

About this artwork

This was one of the first boxes Edwin Bergman acquired directly from Cornell. Following Bergman’s first visit to the artist‘s home in mid-September 1959, Cornell wrote about the travel arrangements for the box in a letter: “I wanted to see the “Night Sky” box under way before I wrote to thank you for your courtesy in bringing me the fairy tokens from the Dorazios. As to the former it got under way on Friday via Railway Express and I believe that it will arrive in the same condition as you saw it. I have kept a tracing of the inner spattered “pane” in case of breakage, and so will you kindly advise if such it might require?” (Joseph Cornell, unpublished letter to Edwin Bergman of September 20, 1959). This letter is revealing of the artist’s attitude to replacement parts for his boxes and to his titles, which he used in a generic, descriptive way, rather than as precise labels.

A large vertical opening is cut into the box’s rear wall to reveal the interior of a smaller box. A pane of clear glass is placed behind the opening, through which a panel covering the rear wall of the smaller box is visible. This panel, which may well be of glass (thus explaining Cornell’s reference in the above letter to an “inner spattered ‘pane’”), is painted dark blue and spattered with white paint to resemble a constellation. As Cornell’s letter to Bergman indicates, this apparently random splatter was carefully recorded in case the box was broken.

Cornell’s interest in both the scientific and imaginative aspects of the study of the stars is well documented. Here, there is a perfect balance between the three main elements of the image: the title, which introduces the multiple associations with glamour and travel of the word “star”; the “abstract” pattern of a constellation formed by the spattered paint, which resembles scientific photographs of the night sky, taken with the assistance of telescopes; and the figurative representation of the myth of Auriga, after which the constellation is named. The image of Auriga Cornell used in this box derives from Johannes Hevelius’s star atlas, Uranographia totum coelum stellatum, published in 1690 (see Giuseppe Maria Sesti, The Glorious Constellations: History and Mythology, New York, 1991, p. 256, ill.). In a diary entry of July 15, 1941, the artist described his first visit to the Hayden Planetarium in New York: “another moving experience, especially on the second floor with its blue dome, silhouetted city sky-line fringing it, and the gradual appearance of all the stars in the night sky to music. … The astronomical paraphernalia: charts, transparencies, broken meteors, and especially compass curios (also armillaries, telescopes, etc.) are intriguing. … On the main floor a particularly fine set of murals of the zodiac, picked out in white on blue. The nicest rendition of the Gemini I’ve seen.” (Cornell 1993, p. 96). Cornell was subsequently a frequent visitor to the Planetarium, subscribing to its periodical, Sky Reporter; and becoming an expert on stars.

At the Stable Gallery, in December of 1955, Cornell exhibited a group of works under the general title of Winter Night Skies, giving them the names of the constellations Auriga, Andromeda, and Camelopardalis. Three versions of Auriga were shown, of which this box was very likely one. A short preface by Garrett P. Serviss in the exhibition announcement merits being quoted in full for its insight into Cornell’s interest in astronomy: “The mythology of Auriga is not clear, but the ancients seem to have been of one mind in regarding the constellations as representing the figure of a man carrying a goat and her two kids in his arms. Auriga was also looked upon as a beneficent constellation, and the goat kids were believed to be on the watch to rescue shipwrecked sailors. As Capella, which represents the fabled goat, shines nearly overhead in winter; and would ordinarily be the first bright star to beam down through the breaking clouds of a storm at that season, it is not difficult to imagine how it got its reputation as the seaman’s friend. Auriga as a constellation, was in vented long before the time of the Greeks, and was intended prophetically to represent that Good Shepherd who was to come and rescue the sinful world.”

This romantic and Christian interpretation of the myth of Auriga is strikingly different from the one given by Catherine Tennant. She emphasized a different stage of the myth: that Auriga was Erecthonious, future king of Athens, deformed son of Earth and Vulcan, who was placed in a box by Athena and given to the care of two maidens, who opened the box and “when they saw the child inside, entwined by a serpent … fled in terror and fell to their death from the Acropolis” (Box of Stars, London, 1993, p. 27). Characteristically, Cornell focused on the beneficent rather than the malevolent aspects of the myth.

The words Hotel de l’Etoile, which Cornell incorporated into this box, point directly to stargazing. Moreover, these words are thought to refer to the ballet Le Rendez-vous, whose set design by Brassaï included huge photographic enlargements of hotel logos (see Sandra Leonard Starr, in New York, Castelli, Feigen, Corcoran, Joseph Cornell and the Ballet, 1983, exh. cat., p. 75). Cornell frequently merged notions of theatrical or cinematic and astronomical stargazing.

The trail of spattered paint, intended to evoke a constellation of stars, is also interesting in relation to the new painting practices in New York at the time, which were in turn influenced by Surrealist automatism. Both Max Ernst and Jackson Pollock had experimented with paint-dripping in their work. It is thus possible, given the profusion of both veiled and explicit references to other artists in Cornell‘s work, that the white trail of paint refers to this new development as well, and reflects the artist’s capacity to internalize and play with aspects of abstraction that otherwise seem alien to his art.

— Entry, Dawn Ades, Surrealist Art: The Lindy and Edwin Bergman Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, 1997, p. 74-75.


On View, Gallery 397


Modern Art


Joseph Cornell


Untitled (Hôtel de l'Etoile)


United States (Artist's nationality:)

Date  Dates are not always precisely known, but the Art Institute strives to present this information as consistently and legibly as possible. Dates may be represented as a range that spans decades, centuries, dynasties, or periods and may include qualifiers such as c. (circa) or BCE.



Box construction


Signed and inscribed on back (fig. 8): Gwendolina Gwendolina (in reverse) / Joseph Cornell (on paper label)


48.3 × 34.7 × 20.7 cm (19 × 13 5/8 × 8 1/8 in.)

Credit Line

Lindy and Edwin Bergman Joseph Cornell Collection

Reference Number



© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation / Licensed by VAGA at ARS, New York

Extended information about this artwork

Object information is a work in progress and may be updated as new research findings emerge. To help improve this record, please email . Information about image downloads and licensing is available here.


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