Glass Flowers

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The Glass Flowers, formally The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants, is a world famous collection of highly realistic glass botanical models at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (HMNH) at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, one of the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture.

A Blaschka glass model of part of a cashew tree at the Harvard Museum of Natural History

They were made by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka from 1887 through 1936 at their studio in Hosterwitz, Germany, near Dresden. The collection was commissioned by Professor George Lincoln Goodale, the first director of Harvard's Botanical Museum, to aid in teaching botany and was financed by Mary Lee Ware and her mother, Elizabeth C. Ware.[1] There are 847 life-size models representing 780 species and varieties of plants in 164 families as well as over 3,000 models of details such as enlargements of plant parts and anatomical sections. The collection comprises approximately 4,400 individual glass models.

The making[edit]

Rudolf (standing) and Leopold Blaschka - the makers of the Glass Flowers

In 1886 the Blaschkas were approached by Professor Goodale, who had come to Dresden for the sole purpose of finding them, with a request to make a series of glass botanical models for Harvard. Leopold was initially unwilling as his current business of selling Glass sea creatures was hugely successful but, eventually, the famed glass artists agreed to send test-models to the U.S. and, although damaged in customs,[2] the fragments convinced Goodale that Blaschka glass art was a more than worthy educational investment. His reasons for wanting the models was simple: At that time, Harvard was the global center of botanical study. As such, Goodale wanted the best, but the only used method was showcasing pressed and carefully labeled specimens — a methodology that offered a twofold problem: being pressed, the specimens were two-dimensional and tended to lose their color. Hence they were hardly the ideal teaching tools.[3][4] However, Harvard had recently procured several of the Blaschkas' marine invertebrates and, upon seeing them, Professor Goodale realized that glass flowers would solve his problem[4] as, being glass, they were both three-dimensional and would retain their color.

The plaque in the Harvard Museum of Natural History's Glass Flowers exhibit, formally dedicating it to Dr. Charles Eliot Ware.

But investments require funds, and to cover such an expensive enterprise Goodale approached his former student Mary Lee Ware and her mother, Elizabeth C. Ware, with his idea. Being independently wealthy and (already) liberal benefactors of Harvard's botanical department,[5] Mary convinced her mother to agree to underwrite the consignment of the uncannily lifelike models they both were enchanted by. The contract signed dictated that the Blaschkas need only work half-time on the models (beginning in 1887) but, in 1890, they and Goodale — signing on behalf of the Wares — signed an updated version that allowed Leopold and Rudolf to work on them full-time;[6][7] some sources detail the agreement as a shift from a 3-year contract to a 10-year one, agreed to once Goodale convinced Mary and her mother of the wisdom in doing so. Either way, the Wares liberally funded the entire enterprise, which lasted until 1936; after both Leopold and Elizabeth had died.[4] To this day the now world famous Glass Flowers are still on display at the HMNH — the exhibit itself dedicated to Dr. Charles Eliot Ware (the deceased father and husband of Mary and Elizabeth Ware respectively. Moreover, unlike the glass marine invertebrates — which were "a profitable global mail-order business"[3] —, the Glass Flowers were commissioned solely for and are unique to Harvard.

The models[edit]

A sample of the Glass Flowers

The models are made out of glass but other materials were used in their construction including wire for internal support, a variety of organic media, and paint. In an article for the Journal of American Conservation, authors McNally and Buschini note that "the Glass Flowers are not made simply of glass. Many are painted (particularly models made in the years 1886–95) and varnished; some parts are glued together, and some of the models contain wire armatures within the glass stems. Coloring of the models ranges from paint to colored glass to enameling."[8] To this day, no one has been able to duplicate the Blaschkas' fine artistry,[9] for, as the Boston Globe so eloquently phrased it, each model is "anatomically perfect and, given all the glass-workers who’ve tried and failed, unreproducible."[10]

Rumors of a secret glassworking process employed by the Blaschkas have been around as long as the models have. The Blaschkas actually practiced techniques that were common to glassworkers of the time but what set them apart was their own astonishing skill in glassworking, meticulous dedication to the study and observation of nature, and enthusiasm for the subject matter. Leopold once did comment on the false rumor of secret methods during one of his correspondences with Mary Lee Ware: "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. The only way to become a glass modeler of skill, I have often said to people, is to get a good great-grandfather who loved glass." After Leopold's (and her mother's) death, Miss Ware visited Rudolf and wrote the following of him to Professor Oakes Ames, Goodale's successor,[6] appearing to confirm the previous statement of Leopold's regarding his son: "One change in the character of his work and, consequently in the time necessary to accomplish results since I was last here, is very noteworthy. At that time...he bought most of his glass and was just beginning to make some, and his finish was in paint. Now he himself makes a large part of the glass and all the enamels, which he powders to use as paint."[11]

The Blaschkas practiced lampworking, a glassworking technique in which glass is melted over a flame fed by air from a foot-powered bellows. The melted glass is then shaped using tools to pinch, pull or cut and forms can be blown as well. As oil lamps were replaced by modern gas-fueled torches, lampworking has come to be referred to as flameworking or torchworking.[12] Specifically, they both worked at an old style Bohemian lamp-working table - which is still on display at the Glass Flower exhibit (donated to Harvard by a Blaschka relative).

Botanist Donald Schnell gives testimony to the astonishing accuracy of the models. He writes of a plant, Pinguicula, the details of whose pollination were unknown. By painstaking analysis of its structures, he worked out the probable mechanism of pollination. On visiting the glass flowers exhibit for the first time in 1997, he was enjoying the "enchanting and very accurate" models, when he was astonished to see a panel showing Pinguicula and a pollinating bee: "one sculpture showed a bee entering the flower and a second showed the bee exiting, lifting the stigma apron as it did so," precisely as Schnell had hypothesized. "As far as I know Professor Goodale never published this information, nor did it seem to have been published by anyone back then, but the process was faithfully executed."[13]

In the Journal of American Conservation, authors Whitehouse and Small state that "the superiority in design and construction of the Blaschka models surpasses all modern model making to date and the skill and art of the Blaschkas rests in peace for eternity."[citation needed]

Public response[edit]

A glass model of a cactus at the Harvard Museum of Natural History

The Glass Flowers are one of the most famous attractions of the Boston area. More than 210,000 visitors view the collection annually. In 1936, when Harvard invited the public to tour the campus in honor of its tercentenary, a New York Times reporter taking the tour commented "Tercentenary or no, the chief focus of interest remains the famous glass flowers, the first of which was put on exhibition in 1893, and which with additions at intervals since, have never failed to draw exclamations of wonder or disbelief from visitors."[14] Indeed, many visitors initially believe the Glass Flowers to be real, organic, plants and soon after entering or leaving exhibition inquire "where are the glass flowers?"[15][16]

A visitor returning to Back Bay in 1951 after a ten-year absence wrote "I was told the two sights above all others that visiting salesmen from the country wish to see when in Boston are the glass flowers at the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Harvard Square and the Mapparium at the Christian Science Church building."

At least two poems feature the flowers:

Mark Doty (winner of the National Book Award for Poetry in 2008), “The Ware Collection of Glass 
Flowers and Fruit, Harvard Museum,” in 
My Alexandria, 1993,[17]

"He’s built a perfection out of hunger,

fused layer upon layer, swirled until

what can’t be tasted, won’t yield,

almost satisfies, an art

mouthed to the shape of how soft things are,

how good, before they disappear."

Marianne Moore wrote in a poem, "Silence",

My father used to say,
"Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow's grave,
or the glass flowers at Harvard."

Harvard's renovation exhibit[edit]

Front view of the temporary display

For a several month period beginning in 2015 and set to end in the early summer of 2016, the Harvard Museum of Natural History (HMNH) set up a "temporary display highlighting twenty-seven of the most popular plant models as well as some items from the Blaschka archives"[18] while the main Glass Flowers exhibit is under renovation. This exhibit was unique because it was the first recorded time that the Glass Flowers have been jointly exhibited with the Blaschkas' earlier models of marine invertebrates in a major and equal display.[18] The renovation exhibit was dismantled when, on May 21, 2016, the main Glass Flowers exhibit reopened. The models of marine invertebrates remain, however and as before, as a permanent exhibit.

Glass sea creatures[edit]

Main article: Glass sea creatures
A sample of the Blaschka Glass sea creatures

Prior to making the Glass Flowers, the Blaschkas established a very successful business supplying collections around the world with glass models of marine invertebrates. Cornell University has some on display [1][2] but most of their models are stored at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York [3]. Other locations exhibiting the Blaschka invertebrates include:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Blaschka Plants Blend Science and Artistry (NYT) -
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^ a b c National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoir
  5. ^ Flowers that never fade / Franklin Baldwin Wiley. Boston Bradlee Whidden, Publisher 1897
  6. ^ a b Schultes, Richard Evans., William A. Davis, and Hillel Burger. The Glass Flowers at Harvard. New York: Dutton, 1982. Print.
  7. ^ The Archives of Rudolph and Leopold Blaschka and the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants -
  8. ^ NcNally, Rika Smith and Nancy Buschini (1993). Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, Volume 32, Number 3, Article 2 (pp. 231 to 240)
  9. ^ Putting the Glass Flowers in new light -
  10. ^ Harvard’s glass flowers return -
  11. ^ Daston, Lorraine (2004). "The Glass Flowers". Things that talk : object lessons from art and science. New York: Zone Books. ISBN 978-1-890951-43-6. 
  12. ^ "Glass Dictionary". Corning Museum of Glass. Retrieved 6 August 2013. 
  13. ^ Schnell, Donald (2002). Carnivorous Plants of the United States and Canada. Timber Press. ISBN 0-88192-540-3.
  14. ^ "Back to Back Bay After an Absence of Ten Years". The New York Times. June 10, 1951. p. XX17. 
  15. ^ Geoffrey N. Swinney & (2008) Enchanted invertebrates: Blaschka models and other simulacra in National Museums Scotland, Historical Biology, 20:1, 39-50, DOI: 10.1080/08912960701677036 -
  16. ^ Rossi-Wilcox SM. 2008. From reference specimen to Verisimilitude: the Blaschkas’ penchant for botanical accuracy. Hist Biol 20(1):11–18.
  17. ^
  18. ^ a b Glass Flowers Renovation Project Frequently Asked Questions (Harvard University Herbaria and Botany Libraries)

External links[edit]