The first of dozens Cornell made in honor of famous ballerinas, this box pays homage to Marie Taglioni, an acclaimed nineteenth-century Italian dancer who, according to legend, kept an imitation ice cube in her jewelry box to commemorate dancing in the snow at the behest of a Russian highwayman. The box is infused with erotic undertones—both in the tactile nature of the glass cubes, velvet, and rhinestone necklace (purchased at a Woolworth's dime store in New York) and in the incident itself, in which Taglioni reportedly performed on an animal skin placed across the snowy road.
Although he spent his entire artistic career living and working in Queens, New York, Cornell drew inspiration from the European art he saw at the Julien Levy Gallery—the first in the United States to exhibit Surrealist work—and often inspired the European Surrealists in turn. In a press release for a 1939 show by Cornell at the Levy Gallery, Salvador Dalí heralded the artist's work as "the only truly Surrealist work to be found in America."
Gallery label from The Erotic Object: Surrealist Sculpture from the Collection, June 24, 2009–January 4, 2010
The art form that Cornell made his own was the box, its contents carefully arranged to evoke a mood or narrative. These works may recall toys the artist had played with as a child, but they must also trace back to devices in Surrealist art (which Cornell knew well) and, earlier, in paintings by Giorgio de Chirico. In Taglioni's Jewel Casket, small glass cubes lie in a wood box. Beneath them, and under blue glass, necklaces, sand, crystal, and rhinestones rest on a mirrored surface. This romantic scene of ice and jewels relates to an event in the life of the legendary nineteenth-century ballerina Marie Taglioni.
A label in the box's lid tells the story: "On a moonlight night in the winter of 1835 the carriage of Marie TAGLIONI was halted by a Russian highwayman, and that enchanting creature commanded to dance for this audience of one upon a panther's skin spread over the snow beneath the stars. From this actuality arose the legend that to keep alive the memory of this adventure so precious to her, TAGLIONI formed the habit of placing a piece of artificial ice in her jewel casket or dressing table where, melting among the sparkling stones, there was evoked a hint of the atmosphere of the starlit heavens over the ice-covered landscape."
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 177