Joseph Cornell’s Manual of Marvels

The Philadelphia Museum of Art revives a lost American masterpiece


Classified as a Surrealist, American artist Joesph Cornell is best known not for his abilities as a painter or a sculptor but as a collector. Cornell took pleasure in the hunt and liked to spend his time scouring secondhand shops for books, faded photographs and other small treasures—which he then used to construct whimsical tableaus. While these collages of curiosities dominated the majority of Cornell’s work, they were not the only medium with which the artist toyed.

One of Cornell’s more unique projects started with a copy of a French agricultural journal from 1911 entitled the “Journal d’Agriculture Pratique,” which he discovered on one of his excursions and became immediately transfixed. Treating it similarly to his sculptures, Cornell transformed the French journal into a Surrealist masterpiece by making additions and alterations to its frail pages. After Cornell’s death, the book, now known as the “Manual of Marvels,” was discovered in his basement studio and placed under the care of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Because with time the book had become too fragile for public display, the museum embarked on creating a facsimile so that everyone could have the opportunity to leaf through some of Cornell’s best work. The final project, a careful, page-by-page reproduction of Cornell’s manual, was a labor of love and included everything from his estranged origami inserts and doodles to his carefully constructed overlays. In its renewed form, the “Manual of Marvels” offers an unprecedented, intimate glimpse into the mad mind of one of America’s greatest Surrealists.


A beautiful and comprehensive ode to Cornell’s work, the museum’s version comes housed in its own specialty box along with a DVD featuring photographs of the original as well as an illustrated collection of contextualizing academic articles. You can purchase your own copy of the Philadelphia Museum’s “Joseph Cornell’s Manual of Marvels” for $47 on Amazon or through Thames & Hudson.

Images by James Thorne