Joseph CORNELL, Untitled (Hôtel du Cygne) [Swan Hotel] Enlarge 1 /1

On display on Level 2


United States of America 1903 – 1972

Untitled (Hôtel du Cygne) [Swan Hotel] c.1950-52 Place made: New York, United States of America
Materials & Technique: sculptures, box construction

Primary Insc: No inscriptions
Dimensions: 48.9 h x 32.4 w x 11.0 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1981
Accession No: NGA 81.1442
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;
  • by inheritance to his sister, Elizabeth Cornell Benton;
  • from whom bought by Castelli Feigen Corcoran, New York, in 1980;
  • from whom bought by the Australian National Gallery, March 1981

This is one of a series of boxes in which Cornell evoked the luxurious grand hotels of la belle époque. Into these boxes he pasted advertisements for such hotels taken from newspapers and travel guides. The hotels mentioned on this box are the Hôtel du Cygne, the Hôtel de L'Etoile, the Hotel Three Moors, the Hotel Restaurant Nettuno and the Grand Hôtel de L'Univers. Some of these names were also used on other hotel boxes, for example clippings for the Hôtel de L'Etoile and the Grand Hôtel de L'Univers each appear on a number of boxes. In re-using the same advertisements Cornell used photomechanical reproductions. The collage material used in this box consists of photographs, with the exception of one stamp. On the inside of the box the side walls are painted white. The back wall is covered in white and dark blue enamel paint. The blue is suggestive of a night sky.

To distinguish this box from the many others dealing with the hotel theme, the Cornell Estate subtitled this box Hôtel du Cygne on the basis of the most prominent advertisement in the box. A portion of an advertisement pasted onto another hotel box, Untitled (Hôtel Beau-Séjour) c.1954, also depicts and briefly describes the Hôtel du Cygne and states that it is located at Lucerne. Built in 1836, it was the town's leading hotel until 1845. The advertisement for the Hôtel du Cygne in the Gallery's box boasts the refurbishing of the hotel in 1897, complete with electric lights, a lift and a 'grand vestibule'.

The lake at Lucerne in Switzerland was one of the fashionable resorts of the belle époque. The Hôtel du Cygne takes its name from the swans that are a feature of the lake. Cornell used the image of the swan in several works to suggest grace and melancholy, the same connotation the swan had for the French Symbolist poets he so admired.

Pasted near the centre of the box is a pale blue Belgian stamp. Cornell painted over the name of the country on the stamp, leaving it to show a portrait of Princess Josephine Charlotte, the elder sister of King Baudouin, the present king of Belgium; the stamp was first issued in 1937 when the princess was ten years old. Cornell used the same stamp in a number of other boxes.1

The figure in the lower half of the box is Andromeda, a princess in Greek legend who has chained to a rock and sacrificed to Neptune after he had been outraged by the vain declarations of Andromeda's mother, Cassiopeia. Cornell placed Andromeda, with chains flailing, against the speckled edge of the blue paint, leading up to the advertisement for 'Hotel Restaurant Nettuno' (Neptune), a deliberate compositional strategy. The image of Andromeda is cut out from a nineteenth-century engraving of a celestial map. The same figure appears in other boxes, for example Untitled (Andromeda) c.1954. Four of the hotel names on the Gallery's box have celestial connotations: 'Cygne' for the constellation Cygnus, 'L'Etoile', 'Nettuno' and 'L'Univers'.

Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.226.

  1. For example, Untitled (Hotel Beau-Séjour) c.1954, and Untitled (Hotel Royal des Etrangers) c.1952.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra