Joseph CORNELL, Les caprices de Gizelle [Gizelle's caprices] Enlarge 1 /1


United States of America 1903 – 1972

Les caprices de Gizelle [Gizelle's caprices] 1947 Place made: New York, United States of America
Materials & Technique: sculptures, box construction

Primary Insc: No inscriptions
Dimensions: 23.0 h x 21.0 w x 10.8 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1980
Accession No: NGA 81.1332
Subject: Art style: Surrealism
Image rights: © Joseph Cornell/VAGA. Licensed by Viscopy
  • in the artist's possession at the time of his death in 1972;
  • with Castelli Feigen Corcoran, New York;
  • through whom bought by the Australian National Gallery, October 1980

In a diary entry for 25 January 1947 Cornell refers to this box: 'work on etuis (small cabinets) progressed — Les Petites Filles Modèles, Les Caprices de Gizelle, Les Perles de l'Opera …',1 which provides a more precise date and title than has formerly been attributed to the work.

On the back of the box are pasted cuttings from a book which read:


Chère enfant, voici un volume que je te dédie. Je désire qu'il t'amuse, et que tes amis te reconnaissent dans les bonnes petites filles que j'ai mises en scène. C'est à cause de tes bonnes et aimables qualités, que ma tendresse pour toi ne viellit pas et qu'elle se maintiendra la même jusqu'au dernier jour de ma vie.

Ta Grand'mère,
Comtesse DE SEGUR,
Née Rostopchine.2

These cuttings are from a volume of plays for children entitled Comédies et Proverbes, published in Paris in 1869 by Hachette. Its author, the Comtesse Sophie de Ségur (1799-1874), wrote popular stories for children which she dedicated to her grandchildren. The text of this volume is interspersed with woodcut illustrations by Emile-Antoine Bayard (1837-91). Cornell must have owned a copy of this book, for not only did he cut out the Comtesse de Ségur's dedication which precedes the main text, he also singled out Bayard's illustrations from this volume for the play Les Caprices de Gizelle and pasted these over the box.3

Comédies et Proverbes belonged to the children's series called 'Bibliothèque Rose Illustrée and this may explain why Cornell washed over the outside of the box with rose-madder ink. Bibliothèque Rose circulated widely during the nineteenth century and the popularity of Madame de Ségur's stories extended into the early twentieth century. Cornell mentions the series several times in his diaries. In an entry for 24 January 1947, the same day that he refers to his work on The Caprices of Gizelle, he notes coming across a 'Windfall of Bibliothèque rose to cover etuis' in a second-hand bookshop on 59th Street.4 For Cornell these books evoked what he frequently termed 'the golden age of childhood', which he recreated in boxes like the Caprices of Gizelle. The box also captures the nostalgia and sense of romance Cornell felt for the nineteenth century.

The inside walls of the box are lined with deep blue plus velvet. Each shelf contains a small cardboard box coated with embossed paper imitating leather. Cornell stained the surface of these boxes with dark blue ink, and onto the bottom of each he pasted pieces of text in French taken from a volume of The Three Musketeers. Each text, on each of the three boxes, mentions the name of one of the musketeers. The middle box is a recent replacement.

The name 'Gizelle' also carries an echo of the ballet Giselle of 1841, which would not have escaped the notice of Cornell as a balletomane. Cornell's knowledge of ballet was extensive and scholarly. He devoted numerous boxes to this subject and was a regular contributor to the periodical Dance Index.

Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.220.

  1. Archives of American Art, Joseph Cornell papers, diaries undated and 1930-72, reel 1059, frame 365.
  2. My dear child / Here is a book which I dedicate to you. I hope that it will amuse you and that your friends will recognise you amongst the charming little girls about whom I have written. Because of your sweet and charming nature the feelings of affection that I have for you will never fade and will remain the same for the rest of my life. / Your grandmother / Countess de Ségur / Née Rostopchine.'
  3. On the left side of the box there appears Bayard's illustration from p.9, captioned 'Maman! Mamon! Au secours!'. This illustration at p.26 ('Mon pied! Mon pied!') has been inserted between the two cut halves. Together these cover this side of the box.

    On the upper half of the right side of the box there appears the illustration from p.23 ('Non ce n'est pas elles! Recommence'), in the middle from p.3 ('Leontine! Toi pleurant devant nous!') and the illustration on the lower section comes from p.71 ('Qu'est-ce que ce papier?').

    On both the left and right sides of the box Cornell has used the full illustration each time, cutting away the edges to properly fit the sides of the box.

    Cornell used all the remaining illustrations from 'Les Caprices de Gizelle' on the front of the box. In this case, he cut around the figures from each illustration. On the front top left is the illustration from p.75 ('Premier essai de fermeté'); on the lower left side the illustration is cut from p.67 ('Tiens, aveugle mère, prends ta fille et reois nos adieux'). Below the seated girl in the book illustration a headless doll lies on the floor. This image obviously appealed to Cornell for he cut it out separately and stuck it at the top right edge next to the illustration on p.55 ('Votre barbe me pique'). On the lower right corner is the illustration cut from p.37 ('La bonne arrive et emporte Gazelle').
  4. Archives of American Art, Joseph Cornell Papers, diaries, undated and 1930-72, reel 1067, frame 041. Another response by Cornell to the French series appears in a diary entry fo 3 May 1948. Cornell notes: 'Saw French Vogue "Les Malheurs de Sophie" made into ballet (Bibliotèque Rose Illustrée)'. Mme de Ségur's 'Sophie' books were a highlight of the Bibliotèque Rose series (ibid., 1509, frame 121).

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra