Cornell was born in Nyack, New York. He never went to art school, but led a quiet life at the family home in New York State. In 1931 he saw an exhibition of Max Ernst's collages and he soon began making his own collages and small assemblages. By the mid-1930s, Cornell was making constructions in wooden boxes, similar to the 'object-sculptures' made by the Surrealists. Cornell was a passionate collector of books, engravings and items of historical interest. His work contains constant references to the past in the form of toys, and old scrap-book images, conjuring up an enigmatic, slightly sinister vision of childhood.