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Nouveaux Contes de Fées (New Fairy Tales)

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 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.


On View, Gallery 397


Modern Art


Joseph Cornell


Nouveaux Contes de Fées (New Fairy Tales)


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


Inscribed, upper right and left: NOUVEAUX CONTES DE FÉES (printed)


32.1 × 26.1 × 15 cm (12 5/8 × 10 1/4 × 5 7/8 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

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