Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Ballet Dance in the Snow

As the snow swirls in dainty puffs across Manhattan, I am reminded of a piece of art located in that fine city’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). By the American artist Joseph Cornell (1903 – 1972), it is called “Taglioni’s Jewel Casket” in honor of a ballerina and her legendary dance across an animal skin in the snow.

Made in 1940, “Taglioni’s Jewel Casket” is a wooden box covered in blue velvet containing a number of glass “ice cubes,” a necklace, jewelry fragments and glass chips. So what does this have to do with the famous Italian ballerina Marie Taglioni of the 19th century? (Above: Image of “Taglioni’s Jewel Casket” courtesy of MoMA.)

Throughout the course of his career, Cornell – who remained in Queens, N.Y. his entire life – was enchanted, even obsessed, with famous women near and far. These ranged from Hollywood starlets, such as Lauren Bacall, to Medici princesses to stars of the Romantic Era’s ballet movement of the 1800s. He was the ultimate fan of whimsical beauty in its various guises. (Above: Cornell’s “Untitled” penny arcade portrait of Lauren Bacall (1945-46), which Christie’s sold in 2014 for more than $5 million.)

Taglioni was the ultimate muse for Cornell, who is now revered as a pioneer of boxed assemblages. She was born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1804 to Sophie Karsten and Filippo Taglioni, who trained her and landed her in his ballet creation, La Sylphide, in 1832. This introduced her to the Paris Opéra – ballet’s most revered stage at the time. (Above: Lithograph of Taglioni, from La Sylphide, courtesy of National Portrait Gallery in London.
Taglioni was among the first women to integrate pointe work – dancing on the extreme tips of the toes – into a performance. Known for her delicacy of movement, she also ushered in a new style of ballet marked by floating leaps and the arabesque pose. She even introduced the diaphanous tutu, which was created expressly to expose her footwork. (Above: Lithograph by Chalon and Lane of Marie Taglioni as Flora in Zéphire et Flore, London, 1831, from the Victoria and Albert Museum.)  
So where does “Taglioni’s Jewel Casket” come into the picture? Cornell created the box after a legend told about the famous ballerina. According to the tale, among the jewels in her box she kept an imitation ice cube to commemorate an occasion when her carriage was beset by a traveling Russian thief. During this incident, Taglioni reportedly danced upon an animal skin placed across the snowy road to charm the robber. It’s a tale as romantic as the Romantic ballet itself. (Above: Lithograph of Taglioni as Bayadère, 1831, from the Victoria and Albert Museum.)


  1. i will have to keep that tactic in mind, should a thief ever happen upon me in my old lady car--but i doubt my moves would be as enchanting. great art history lesson!