Sometime in the early twentieth century, the American artist Joseph Cornell paid a visit to his cousin Ethel. An only child, Ethel lived alone in a “Hudson River-type” house, as Cornell’s sister Betty described it. During his visit and while rummaging around in the basement or attic of Ethel’s house, Cornell found a large Victorian porcelain girl doll; when he left Ethel’s house, the doll left with him. He did not tell Ethel that he had taken the doll.
Cornell wrote later on that he had “kidnapped” this doll, which he would eventually name “Bébé Marie.” That Cornell regarded the act of taking the doll as a kidnapping rather than an act of theft shows that he believed the doll had the soul of a living being. The naming of the doll carried it further into the human realm. In common with many who own dolls, and make or use statues, figures, mannequins, or ventriloquist’s dummies, Cornell had imbued Bébé Marie with part of his soul.
Some years after acquiring Bébé Marie, Cornell set her in a grove of bare-twig trees within a glass-fronted box. His encasement of the doll seemed to strengthen her quality of soul: having “freed” her from entombment in his cousin’s house, treated her like a person, and given her a name, he now gave her a space in which to live and act.
(The details of Cornell’s visit to his cousin were taken from the reminiscences of his sister Elizabeth Cornell Benton, as published in the book Joseph Cornell’s Vision of Spiritual Order, by Lindsay Blair [London: Reaktion Books, 1998].)
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