Joseph Cornell was born in Nyack, NY. The oldest of 4 children and the son of a successful menswear textile designer, Cornell's family lived comfortably until circumstances after the death of his father in 1917 drastically changed the family’s means. That same year, Cornell entered Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, although he would not graduate.

Cornell began his professional career as a textile salesman in Manhattan, and later a textile designer like his father. As Cornell canvassed the streets of Manhattan, he began to acquire his first collections of memorabilia and curiosities, perusing the city's shops, theaters, galleries and booksellers. These cultivated and curated collections, which he would use to compose his assemblages, drew from Cornell's eclectic interests in literature, music and dance, maps and science, to a fascination with Hollywood and Vaudeville and to the spiritual theories of Christian Science. Cornell is widely characterized as reclusive, as he seldom ventured far from the Utopia Parkway, Queens, New York home he shared with his mother and disabled brother. From home Cornell did engage with the New York gallery world and in extensive dialogues and exchanges with his contemporaries, showing an appreciation for foreign places and encounters through his work and correspondence.

Cornell's work debuted in the 1932 exhibition Surréalisme at the Julien Levy Gallery, where he had first discovered Surrealist art and literature. That same year marked the first of three solo shows with the gallery. Cornell's work was included in the historic 1936 exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism at the Museum of Modern Art and retrospective exhibitions at the Pasadena Art Museum (1967) and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1967). Cornell died in 1972.