Corneille was born in the Belgian Liège, to Dutch parents. Though largely self-taught, he attended art courses at the Amsterdam Academy, between 1940 and 1942. In 1946 he held his first exhibition in Groningen.
Initially strongly influenced by the work of Picasso, he detached himself in 1948 of this and joined the Cobra-movement; he is co-founder, along with among others the Dutch Karel Appel, Jan Nieuwenhuijs, his brother Constant Nieuwenhuijs and the Belgians Christian Dotremont and Joseph Noiret.
In 1950, he moved from Amsterdam to Paris, where he lived until 1968 with the photographer Henny Riemens (1928-1993). The couple married in 1955 in Amsterdam and traveled several times to other parts of the world: North Africa, North America, the Antilles and South America. These trips have a significant impact on the nature of his work. Starting 1960 he fell back on figurative art, where women, birds, flowers and often characters belong to his artistic vocabulary.
He claims that painting is no hobby or work, but rather a calling. In recent years, Corneille had his studio in Paris. Visitors were virtually not tolerated by the artist.
In 2006 is a record amount of 215.000 Euros was paid for a painting by Corneille.
Corneille lived withdrawn in the Maison du Cedres in the French Department of Val-d’Oise. He died on September 5, 2010. Corneille was buried on the cemetery in Auvers-sur-Oise, where Vincent van Gogh in 1890 was also buried.