“On a moonlit night in the winter of 1835, the carriage of Marie Taglioni was halted by a Russian highway man,” the inscription begins. It goes on to explain how she danced beneath the stars for the Russian robber and thus was allowed to keep her box of jewels.
A story as elaborate as this might seem to lend Taglioni’s Jewel Casket (of which he made many variations) a built-in obscurity, or at least a layer of weirdly arcane detail that few could unravel. Of course, that just what he wanted. In much the same way that he was frugal with money, Cornell was retentive with meaning, refusing to give anything away. In his art, he resisted instant communication with the viewer much as he resisted easy intimacy with the people in his life. The objects inside his boxes were not just random assortments of material but souvenirs of a quest, a chronicle of infatuations whose meaning was as complicatedly inward as a private journal.
–Deborah Solomon, Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell