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Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)
Property from the Sylvia G. Zell Collection
Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)

Medici Princess

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972)
Medici Princess
signed 'Joseph Cornell' (on a paper label affixed to the reverse)
wood box construction--glass, tinted glass, mirror, wood, printed paper collage, paint and nails
16 5/8 x 11¾ x 4 5/8 in. (42.2 x 29.8 x 11.7 cm.)
Executed circa 1950s.
The Estate of Joseph Cornell, New York
American Dovecote & Shooting Gallery, New York
Donald Morris Gallery, Detroit
Sylvia G. Zell, Bloomfield Hills, 1976
By descent from the above to the present owner
The Sylvia G. Zell Collection of Modern Art, Boston, 1988, p. 47 (illustrated in color).

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Koji Inoue
Koji Inoue

Lot Essay

In Medici Princess, Joseph Cornell creates a dreamy homage to the young Bia de Medici, reproducing Bronzino's iconic portrait within blue-tinted glass and an intricately-carved wooden frame. Named for the Florentine banking family famous for its artistic patronage, Cornell's famous series also includes boxes dedicated to Cosimo and Piero de Medici, as depicted by Sofinisba Anguissola and Caravaggio. Bronzino's portrait proved especially poignant, as it was commissioned posthumously after Bia's death at age five. With clear, jewel-toned glass and fragmented imagery, Bia de Medici becomes an emblem of the irretrievable past: capturing the wonder of European Renaissance and the idealized innocence of children.

Within a white-washed interior, three vertical sheets of dark blue glass are supported by blocks of white wood. Cornell reverses Bronzino's original picture, so that it appears like a reflected image. Its flipped orientation is emphasized by its duplication in miniature, unexpectedly revealed by the back mirror. Reproduced and obscured behind indigo glass, the princess seems eternally frozen in the distant past. The dark wood frame, incised with a pearl pattern along the front, reverberates the pattern of Bia's necklace and her shimmering satin dress. The interior panels, lined with fragments of Baedeker maps of the Mediterranean Coast, Roman city plans, and a sepia-hued diagram of a grand Spanish palace, seem to symbolically trace the privileged areas that the princess may have visited.

Allusion to art history is ever-present in Cornell's oeuvre, as he spent many hours in the New York City Library reading about European art and scouring lower Manhattan flea markets and thrift shops to compile his dossier of antique maps and Old Master reproductions. Medici Princess, in particular, shows his understanding of Renaissance and Baroque painting. Just as Cornell gently renders the imagined world of his Medici princess, in Las Meninas, Diego Velázquez paints with remarkable delicacy the Infanta Margarita Theresa. Velázquez also illustrates early modern Europe's fascination with mirrors and reflection by painting the ghostly faces of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana in a foggy mirror behind the courtiers. The Spanish painter's visual pun of representing a purely reflected image is elaborated by Cornell, by reproducing, duplicating and reflecting the princess's portrait so that she appears eternally transient and intangible.

In Medici Princess, the artist merges the Renaissance fascination with optical wonders, with his own childhood memories of New York City's penny arcades. The wooden cubes and ball, then, resemble children's building blocks or dice, talismanic of a remembered past. In this work, Cornell's interest in games, chance and flea-market treasures perfectly suits the Dada and Surrealist artists' cult of the object. Even the cube and square reflect his mentor Marcel Duchamp's rendering of the pawn and rook pieces on his Dada chessboard. In Cornell's work, painted intersecting white lines on each glass pane position the princess as a moving target within a shooting gallery game. In light of the work's date--just after the culmination of World War II--Medici Princess appears particularly sobering, as the shooting motif calls to mind the irreparable damage of warfare. In this delicate work, Cornell laments the destruction of life, property and European culture, which owes much of its magnificent heritage to the Medici family.

Medici Princess derives from the notable collection of Sylvia G. Zell who, in addition to her three superb Cornell shadowboxes, acquired Surrealist works by Miró and Arp, as well Abstract Expressionist paintings by de Kooning, Rothko and Pollock. In 1968, the legendary curator Sam Wagstaff began at the Detroit Institute of Arts, transforming the city's art scene with controversial exhibitions and captivating lectures, which encouraged Zell "to broaden [her] scope and look, look, look. [She] was transfixed, hooked" (J. Faust, The Sylvia G Zell Collection of Modern Art, Washington D.C., 1988, p. 8). Zell became interested in the paintings and sculpture of the emerging Minimalist artists, making frequent trips to Europe and New York--on one visit, a friend remembers Zell trekking to SoHo through a blizzard to see a David Smith installation. Among other generous gifts, she donated Joel Shapiro's Untitled and Elizabeth Murray's Two or Three Things to Detroit Institute of Arts in 1976 to jump-start its contemporary holdings. Her collection has been intimately chronicled in the 1988 publication, The Sylvia G. Zell Collection of Modern Art.

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