Joseph Cornell was born on December 24, 1903, in Nyack, New York, to parents descended from old Dutch families, his maternal grandfather being the wealthy and prominent Commodore William Voorhis. After his father's death in 1917 Cornell, along with his mother, two sisters, and an invalid brother, was faced with a financial set-back that forced them to leave Nyack and move to Flushing, Queens, where he lived until his death in 1972. Educated at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Cornell worked at a variety of jobs such as selling refrigerators door-to-door, designing textiles, and working in the garment industry to help support his family. He never married or travelled, living most of his life in a white frame house on Utopia Parkway in Queens. Cornell was an active Christian Scientist all of his adult life.
It is speculated that Cornell first made his toy-like artworks to amuse his brother who was confined to a wheelchair and cared for by Cornell. He filled them with all sorts of ephemera, of which he was an avid collector. Cornell was known to haunt old book and print shops and junk stores during his daily trips to Manhattan, and he had extensive collections of old photographs, recordings, movies, opera librettos, souvenirs, and other memorabilia. He was enamoured of all forms of theater and was well read in literature and poetry.
A very private man, it is thought that he first began making boxes in which he collaged images and objects from his various collections in the early 1930s. The boxes, often containing words, were each based on themes developed by the relationships between collage elements. These connections were sometimes direct but more often allusive, giving the boxes a poetic quality. Cornell did many boxes that were homages to ballerinas, opera singers, and film stars he revered and sometimes corresponded with. The boxes were nostalgic worlds filled with people and places that Cornell admired from a distance. One such box entitled A Pantry Ballet for Jacques Offenbach contains a ballet corps of red plastic fish set against a background of shelf-paper which turns the box into a stage with paper doily curtains and menacing stagesets of toy silverware. The scale and nature of Cornell's boxes did not change much, but in the 1950s he began to make two-dimensional collages without the framework of the boxcontainer.(encyclopedia.com)