The National Gallery of Art Adds 20 Joseph Cornell Boxes to Its Collection

The major gift comes from collector Robert Lehrman, who has been collecting Cornell's works for some 40 years.

Open wooden box holding numerous jars
Joseph Cornell, Egypte de Mlle. Cleo de Merode: cours elementaire d’histoire naturelle (Miss Cleo de Merode’s Egypt: Elementary Natural History Course), 1940. Courtesy National Gallery of Art

The National Gallery of Art has received a major gift of works by Joseph Cornell, an artist who became an icon of 20th-century culture despite living in relative isolation while alive. Consisting of twenty of the artist’s signature box constructions and seven collages, the donation comes from art collectors Robert and Aimee Lehrman. Select works from the gift will go on view at the Washington, D.C., museum on January 18.

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“This remarkable, world-class gift instantly makes the National Gallery an indispensable site for anyone wanting to appreciate and study the art of Joseph Cornell, one of the most unusual and influential American artists of the 20th century,” said Harry Cooper, senior curator and head of the National Gallery’s department of modern and contemporary art, in a statement. “Cornell’s works are delicate, precious works unto themselves, and we are honored to preserve, study, and display this meticulously assembled collection of his art for posterity.”

Originally from Nyack, New York, Cornell spent most of his time in his Queens home with his mother and disabled brother. Prior to his death in 1972, the artist rarely left the house, let alone the New York City area. The basement was where he carefully crafted his experimental films and collages, as well as the shadow boxes for which he is best known. Cornell’s elaborate boxes were painstakingly filled with found objects and inspired by everything from museums and the theater to pharmacy and astronomy.

Wooden box containing clippings and photo of a bird
Joseph Cornell, A Parrot for Juan Gris, 1953–1954. Courtesy National Gallery of Art.

Despite his reserved nature, Cornell struck up friendships with artists like Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Yayoi Kusama and Marcel Duchamp, and he often referenced other artists and their work in his boxes. Variétés Apollinaris, one of the works gifted to the National Gallery, includes a reproduction of the ballet dance from Pablo Picasso’s 1905 painting Family of Saltimbanques. Another piece from the donation, Cornell’s A Parrot for Juan Gris, references the silhouette and composition of Gris’s 1915 painting Fantômas.

Who is art collector Robert Lehrman?

With help from the National Gallery, Robert Lehrman, with Aimee Lehrman, chose works from their collection that would showcase a complete range of Cornell’s art. “One of art’s greatest powers and enduring qualities is that it speaks to us through time, about the continuum of creativity and culture,” Robert said in a statement. “I know of no better place for Cornell’s art than the National Gallery of Art, where Cornell’s work will join and speak to some of the greatest art of all time.”

Lehrman, a trustee of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and former board member at institutions like the New Museum, Corcoran Gallery of Art and Washington Project for the Arts, first began collecting art in 1979. Over the years, he acquired pieces by artists including Andy Warhol, Agnes Martin, Gerhard Richter, Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor and Brice Marden.

However, his collection is distinguished by its focus on Cornell, whose work Lehrman was first introduced to by the curator Walter Hopps. In addition to amassing one of the most comprehensive holdings of Cornell works, the art collector in 2003 helped produce and publish Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay…Eterniday, which explores Cornell’s life and artistic process.

The National Gallery of Art Adds 20 Joseph Cornell Boxes to Its Collection