Show & Tell: The Blaschka Glass Flowers

Allie_Caulfield via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Allie_Caulfield via Flickr // CC BY 2.0 / Allie_Caulfield via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, 19th century father-and-son glass craftsmen from Dresden, Germany, came from a family of glassblowers that stretched all the way back to 15th century Venice. The Blaschka glass flowers, the largest collection of which is held at Harvard’s Museum of Natural History, represent more than five decades of the Blaschkas’ best work. 

Leopold Blaschka, the father of the pair, began the scientific phase of his career by making models of sea-dwelling invertebrates. The mid-19th-century models echoed scientists’ new fascination with the gorgeous variety of ocean creatures (see, for example, fellow German Ernst Haeckel’s beautiful catalogs of sea invertebrates).

Leopold had been making glass eyes and blown jewelry, but transitioned to scientific production and began supplying museums and scientists with glass specimens. Glass cephalopods and radiolarians failed to rot the way real specimens did, and allowed a better view of the colors and structures of these invertebrates. In the 1870s, curious collectors could buy Blaschka glass invertebrates from Ward’s Natural History Catalogue for a few dollars—expensive by the standards of that day, but cheap compared to the price of an intact Blaschka model today.

One of the Blaschka Glass Invertebrates at Harvard. Image by sionnac via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Blaschka flowers were a second act—and a lucrative one. Charged with starting a teaching museum in 1886, George Lincoln Goodale, a botany professor at Harvard, hit upon the idea of asking the Blaschkas to make plants to use in botanical instruction. “It was through the untiring energy of Dr. Geo. L. Goodale,” wrote Walter Deane in the Botanical Gazette in 1894, “that these artists were induced to abandon their work of making glass models of animals … They were … finally persuaded, on their own terms, to give their entire time to this work.” Financially supported by Harvard, the Blaschkas sent shipments of these delicate flower models to the States twice a year. When Leopold died, in 1895, Rudolf continued to uphold their end of the contract.

The resulting group of Blaschka flowers is still at Harvard—4000 models, representing more than 830 species. The museum’s Frequently Asked Questions covering the collection includes the query, “Are they really glass?”—reflecting a healthy, and understandable, skepticism on the part of its visitors. (The answer: Yes, they’re really glass. Sometimes they have wire supports inside.)

Linden Tea via Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

While the scientific value of this collection is largely moot—researchers have other ways to see botanical specimens now—the strange verisimilitude of the Blaschka flowers still has the power to move contemporary museum audiences. Today, the project seems both ambitious and foolhardy. The Blaschkas created beautiful objects, meant to represent fragile states of nature, freezing those states of bloom or rot in permanence; but the objects are, themselves, unbearably fragile, and it seems utterly improbable that so many should have survived. (As poet Mark Doty wrote, in a meditation on the Blaschkas’ work: “And why did a god so invested in permanence/choose so fragile a medium, the last material/he might expect to last? Better prose/to tell the forms of things, or illustration.”)  

The Corning Museum of Glass, which holds a smaller group of Blascka flowers and invertebrates, offers digitized images of some of the tools and dyes that the Blaschkas used to make their specimens, as well as many of the drawings the pair made while researching and designing their models.