If you have ever pressed a flower in a book or observed a diaphanous jellyfish, you can grasp the difficulty of preserving their fragile beauty for later study. This is the story of a Czech/German glassworker and his son who, from 1863-1936, crafted thousands of beautiful and anatomically accurate glass models of hundreds of species of marine invertebrates and flowering plants.
An interest borne out of tragedy
Leopold Blaschka was born into a family of glassworkers arising out of the Izera Mountains on the border between the modern-day Czech Republic and Poland, a region known for processing glass, metals, and gems. As a student, he loved natural history and painting. After being apprenticed as a goldsmith and gemcutter, Leopold joined his family’s business in Aicha, Bohemia, crafting costume jewelry and other fancy glasswork.
In 1846 Leopold married Caroline Zimmermann, the daughter of a local mill owner, and they had a son, Josef. But both Caroline and Josef died of cholera in 1850. Heartbroken, Leopold was depressed and in poor health, leading a reclusive existence. A local doctor, who had a large library of natural history books, encouraged Leopold to find solace by collecting, studying, and sketching the plants in the countryside around his home.
Then Leopold’s father died in 1852. Further devastated by this loss, Leopold took time off in 1853 to visit the United States. On the outward journey from Europe, his ship was becalmed for two weeks near the Azores. Leopold spent the time collecting and drawing jellyfish and other marine invertebrates. He had never seen such animals before, except in book illustrations, and was fascinated by their glasslike transparency. He described observing their phosphorescence at night:
It is a beautiful night in May. Hopeful, we look out over the darkness of the sea, which is as smooth as a mirror; there emerges all around in various places a flashlike bundle of light beams, as if it surrounded by thousands of sparks, that form true bundles of fire and other bright spots of light, and the seemingly mirrored stars. There emerges close before us a small spot in a greenish light, which becomes ever larger and larger and finally becomes a bright shining sunlike figure.
After arriving in New York, he stayed for a few months, supplying goods to wholesale jewelers. Then he returned home to Aicha, where he married Carolina Riegel in 1854, establishing a glass workshop in his father-in-law’s house. He supervised workmen in producing glass eyes, costume ornaments, lab equipment, and other goods. In his spare time, he began crafting glass models of plants as a seemingly profitless hobby, with no idea of where his idle artmaking would eventually lead him and their only child, Rudolf, who was born in 1857.
From orchids to anemones
Leopold’s hobby caught the attention of Prince Camille de Rohan, who invited Leopold to his castle. From 1860-1862 he commissioned Leopold to produce about 100 models of nearly fifty species of orchids based on specimens from the Prince’s greenhouses. The Prince then displayed them on two artificial tree trunks in his palace in Prague. The prince also introduced Leopold to Professor Ludwig Reichenbach, the director of Dresden’s Royal Natural History Museum and Botanical Garden, who displayed the models in the garden’s pavilion in 1863. The glass orchids were later lost in a Belgian museum fire, but a bouquet of flowers which Leopold crafted in that era, shown below, survives.
Leopold moved his family to Dresden. While the glass flowers aroused little commercial interest, an Englishman living in Dresden remarked to Leopold how glass models of sea anemones, which are notoriously perishable, could adorn aquaria. He loaned Leopold a book with illustrations of sea anemones and corals.
Building a business
Remembering his own experience seeing sea invertebrates a decade earlier, Leopold used the illustrations to craft models which were purchased by museum director Reichenbach for display in dry aquaria. By 1871 Leopold had built the making of glass marine animals into a business, producing a mail order catalog that would offer hundreds of different models of anemones, worms, echinoderms, molluscs, and jellyfish. Reichenbach noted in the catalog how the glass models were better than specimens preserved in alcohol, as the glass models retained both their shape and color, while preserved invertebrate specimens inevitably subsided into dull shapeless masses at the bottom of their jars.
Leopold and Caroline’s son, Rudolf, grew into a teenager who studied with his father and fully joined the family business by 1876 at age 19. They began maintaining living specimens in seawater aquaria, and Rudolf made a field trip to the Adriatic in 1879 to study more invertebrates.
Their work, a combination of both glassblowing and lampwork, steadily shifted from a more showy decorative style toward increased scientific accuracy. They sometimes incorporated the shells of terrestrial, freshwater, and marine gastropods and created glass bodies attached to the shells of bivalve molluscs. A fine speckled layer of pigment, often applied to the inner surface of the glass, conveyed a jelly-like translucence. Thicker skins and textures were crafted from deeper coats of paint or enamel, often mixed with a fine granular material.
They sold specimens to museums around the world, with some universities building up prodigious collections. They sold 784 models to a London museum, about 600 to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, 530 to a Dublin museum, 350 to Harvard’s famed naturalist Louis Agassiz, and Boston University acquired 311 of them. Harvard still has 185 Blaschka models in its Natural History Museum.
Henry Ward, a protégé of Harvard’s Agassiz, became a professor of natural science at the University of Rochester in 1860. After creating a superb teaching collection, he went into business in 1873. Ward’s Natural Science became the North American agent for Leopold Blaschka, issuing a 22-page catalog in 1878 of 630 different Blaschka models, which grew to 700 in Ward’s 1888 catalog.
Ward’s Natural Science continues to sell biological models of various materials to this day, and our own Bartlesville High school has some of them, but none of the Blaschka models. By the middle of the 20th century, Ward’s was able to build a thriving business shipping live specimens to schools, which seemed to render the glass marine models obsolete. However, the diminishing populations of these fragile creatures has renewed interest in the Blaschkas’ work, with Cornell offering online photographs of 250 Blaschka marine models and Harvard now restoring some of its models.
French photographer Guido Mocafico was photographing jellyfish in aquaria. While researching jellyfish online, he kept stumbling across images of the glass models, mistaking them for the real thing. So he decided to travel across Europe, taking photos of Blaschka marine models, using an array of backlights to make the sculptures glow as if lit from within.
Harvard’s Glass Flowers
In 1886, George Lincoln Goodale, a botany professor at Harvard, traveled to Germany to try to persuade Leopold to abandon making marine models and concentrate again on plants. Goodale had seen the marine models and knew that glass models would solve his problems with flower specimens which lost their dimensionality and eventually their color after pressing.
Leopold was reluctant, given the general lack of appreciation for his earlier plant models and the loss of so many in a museum fire. But Goodale eventually persuaded Leopold to make a few samples. Even though they were badly damaged by U.S. Customs, Goodale appreciated the work and showed them widely, convincing his former student Mary Lee Ware and her mother Elizabeth, who were independently wealthy benefactors of Harvard’s botany department, to underwrite the commissioning of glass flowers from the Blaschkas. The Wares were descendants of the Cabots, a wealthy family of Massachusetts ship merchants since the 1700s.
In 1887 the Blaschkas agreed to spend half of their time on the glass flowers, but found it difficult to split their time between the marine models and the flowers, deciding by 1890 they must devote themselves to one or the other. Harvard signed them to a ten-year exclusive contract for 8,800 marks per year, with arrangements to ship the items directly to Harvard where Mary Lee Ware and museum staff could open them safely in the presence of Customs officials.
Harvard sent the Blaschkas seeds, plant cuttings, and specimens, and the Blaschkas had their own greenhouse and garden in Dresden. The plant models were made with internal copper wire armatures with glass pieces slid onto them and attached with hide glue or melted glass sprit. The accuracy and skill of their work was amazing.
In 1894 several of the Blaschka plant models were subjected to microscopic examination by Harvard botanist Walter Deane. He documented their scientific accuracy: one model he examined had 2,500-3,000 individual buds, blooms, and developing fruit, with each flower having its five petals and five alternating stamens, and the back side, even though not visible when on display, he found to be equally complete and accurate.
The Blaschkas used a mixture of clear and colored glass, with Rudolf painting many of the works with watercolors and oil-based paints. Mary Ware took an avid interest in the work and personally unpacked each model and made arrangements for Rudolf’s fieldwork. Rudolf traveled to the United States in 1892 and Jamaica in 1895 to study additional plants, making extensive drawings and notes. At that point, the Blaschkas were sending about 120 glass models to Harvard annually. Upon meeting Mary Ware on his 1892 trip, Rudolf described her as “a large blond lady of very lively temperament.”
The Blaschkas plant models were crafted by lampwork. Instead of glassblowing with a furnace, they used the flame of a lamp to heat rods of glass which were softened and then pulled, shaped, and fused. Harvard has the lampworking table the Blaschkas used, with its foot-operated bellows providing a stream of air that intensified the lamp flame.
A letter of Leopold’s remarked, “Many people think that we have some secret apparatus by which we can squeeze glass suddenly into these forms, but it is not so. We have tact. My son Rudolf has more than I have, because he is my son, and tact increases in every generation.”
Leopold passed away in 1895, but Rudolf continued the work at a slower pace to achieve higher levels of perfection. By the early 20th century he could not buy glass of suitably high quality and started making his own, as well as the enamels which he powdered to use in paint and colored glass. Mary Ware encouraged him, supporting his glassmaking experiments.
A lifetime of dedication and support
Rudolf married Frieda Richter in 1911, when he was in his mid-50s. Mary remained a generous benefactor and correspondent. Rudolf’s mother, Carolina, passed in 1923. When Mary Ware visited Rudolf for the third and final time in Dresden in 1928, with six years having passed since the last shipment, she wrote of the 71-year-old craftsman, “I was daunted to see what seemed a little old man, legs that were not strong, very rounded, stooped shoulders, and an exceedingly white face. He must have dropped nearly two inches in height, his hands were somewhat out of shape from rheumatism.” But she was reassured when he showed her his new techniques for enameling the models with his powdered glasses:
His movements are quiet, deft, soft in laying down or taking up where speed or a miscalculated movement might ruin the work of hours. It all leaves you breathless that anyone can and will do such work… Mr. Blaschka’s head and bearing are very expressive, and I wished I could catch a photograph of his profile as he stood for a few moments, a plaque with a model on it held in both hands. His whole expression of absorbed, concentrated study was worth keeping, had it been possible.
Rudolf continued making glass flowers for Harvard with a final series on rotting fruits and fungi that were shipped to Harvard in 1936. Mary Ware passed away the next year, leaving over one million dollars in assets. Her will bequeathed $600,000 to charity and education, with the largest single bequest in her will being $300,000 for completion and upkeep of the Glass Flowers and support of Rudolf and Frieda. She had supported the project for five decades.
Rudolf died on May 1, 1939. Unfinished models remained on his lampworking table. The Harvard collection had grown to 4,400 pieces representing more than 830 species of 164 taxonomic families. 780 species were modeled life-size with over 3,000 other models illustrating magnified details. They included a variety of plant parts such as flowers, leaves, fruits, and roots, including some showing pollination by insects.
Frieda died in 1947. She and Rudolf had no children and neither Rudolf nor Leopold had taken on any apprentices. So their amazing skills were not passed on and their family’s glassmaking tradition was brought to an end. Together they had produced about 10,000 glass marine invertebrate models along with the 4,400 plant models at Harvard. Leopold and Carolina, together with Rudolf and Frieda, share a grave in the Hosterwitz cemetery in Dresden.
Harvard is investing in restoring its famed glass flowers, some of which are now over 130 years old. A lasting legacy that has long preserved some of the world’s most ephemeral natural wonders.