Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka
Leopold Blaschka (27 May 1822 – 3 July 1895) and his son Rudolf Blaschka (17 June 1857 – 1 May 1939) were Dresden, Germany glass artists native to the Bohemian (Czech)–German borderland, known for the production of biological models such as the glass sea creatures and their more famous successors the Glass Flowers.
Born to glass
The Blaschka family is old in honor and skill in world of glass artistry - originating from Josefuv Dul (Antoniwald) in the Iser or Izera Mountains, a region known for processing glass, metals and gems - their business having spanned more than 300 years, working in Venice, Bohemia (in an area now in the Czech Republic) and Germany by the time Leopold and Rudolf achieved fame. This, unquestionably, is the root of Leopold's famous quote - written in a 1889 letter to Mary Lee Ware - regarding the source of his skill: "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; then he is to have a son with like tastes; he is to be your grandfather. He in turn will have a son who must, as your father, be passionately fond of glass. You, as his son, can then try your hand, and it is your own fault if you do not succeed. But, if you do not have such ancestors, it is not your fault. My grandfather was the most widely known glassworker in Bohemia."
Born in Český Dub, Bohemia, and one of Joseph Blaschke's three sons, Leopold, alone of his brothers, displayed the necessary artistic skills as a child, and was apprenticed to a goldsmith and gemcutter in Turnov, a town in the Liberec Region of today's Czech Republic. He then joined the family business, which produced glass ornaments and glass eyes. He developed a technique which he termed "glass-spinning", which permitted the construction of highly precise and detailed works in glass. He also Latinised his family name to "Blaschka", and began to focus the business on the manufacture of glass eyes.
Leopold's son Josef Augustin Blaschka - presumably named after Leopold's father - was born within four years of his marriage to Caroline Zimmermann in 1846. Tragically, however, in 1850 both Carolina and little Josef died, the latter to a cholera epidemic, and then, a year later in 1851, Leopold lost in father.
Glass marine invertebrates
In 1853, Leopold Blaschka - grief stricken and in need of a vacation - traveled to the United States. En route, however, the ship was becalmed and lay still upon the sea for two weeks. During this period of forced idleness, Leopold studied and sketched the local marine invertebrate population, intrigued by the transparency of their bodies which was next of kin to the glass his family had long worked. Indeed, Leopold felt a sense of quiet, inspirational, wonder at these luminescent ocean dwellers, a sense which he we recorded and has been since translated by a Henri Reiling: "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 is surrounded by thousands of sparks, that form true bundles of fire and of other bright lighting spots, and the seemingly mirrored stars. There emerges close before us a small spot in a sharp greenish light, which becomes ever larger and larger and finally becomes a bright shining sunlike figure."
This sense of wonder would fuel his later work, but in the meantime and upon his return to Dresden, Leopold focused on his family business - a family which had grown by one as, in 1854, Leopold married Caroline Riegel - producing glass eyes, costume ornaments, lab equipment, and other such fancy goods and specialty items that only a master lampworker could accomplish. However, like anyone, he did have free time, and his hobby was to make glass models of plants – as opposed to invertebrates. This would, many years later, become a base for the fabled Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants (otherwise known as the Glass Flowers), but, for the moment, such artistry was naught but an amusing and profitless pastime done between his various commissions. Yet, unsurprisingly, given their stunning quality, this amusing hobby – itself born out of seeking consolation in nature upon his first wife's death – attracted attention. Aristocratic attention, as it turned out, specifically the eyes of Prince Camille de Rohan who arranged to meet with Leopold at Sychrov Castle in 1857 - the same year that the Leopold & Caroline's son Rudolf was born. Being something of a naturalist himself, the Prince commissioned Leopold to craft 100 glass orchids for his private collection  and, being more than a little impressed by the mastery Leopold's work, in 1862, "the prince exhibited about 100 models of orchids and other exotic plants, which he displayed on two artificial tree trunks in his palace in Prague," a fateful act which brought the skill of the Blaschkas to the attention of another - man whom the Prince had actually once introduced to Leopold: a certain Professor Ludwig Reichenbach.
The director of the natural history museum in Dresden, Prof. Reichenbach, was enchanted by the botanical models and positive that Leopold held the key to ending his own inability to properly showcase marine invertebrates, for in the 19th century the only practiced method of showcasing them was to take a live specimen and place it in a sealed jar of alcohol. This of course killed it but, more importantly, time and their lack of hard parts eventually rendered them into little more than colorless floating blobs of jelly. Neither pretty nor a terribly effective teaching tool, the Dresden museum director desired something more, specifically 3D colored models of marine invertebrates that were both lifelike and able to stand the test of time and thus, in 1863 Reichenbach convinced and commissioned Leopold to produce twelve model sea anemones. These marine models, hailed as "an artistic marvel in the field of science and a scientific marvel in the field of art," were a great improvement on previous methods of presenting such creatures: drawings, pressing, photographs and papier-mâché or wax models.
Knowing this and thrilled with his newly acquired set of glass sea creatures, Reichenbach advised Leopold to drop his current and generations long family business of glass fancy goods and the like in favor of selling glass marine invertebrates to museums, aquaria, universities, and private collectors - advice which prompted the swiftly and highly lucrative mail-order business that followed. Indeed, "the world had never seen anything quite like the beautiful, scientifically accurate Blaschka models" and yet they were available via so common a means as via mail-order per one's local card catalog. Not glorious, perhaps, but highly effective, and museums and universities began purchasing them en mass to put on display much as Prof. Reichenbach had - for natural history museum directors the world over had the same marine invertebrate showcasing problem. In short, Blaschkas Glass sea creature mail-order enterprise succeeded for two reasons: 1- there was a huge and global demand; 2- they were the only and best glass artists capable of crafting literally scientifically flawless models. Initially the designs for these were based on drawings in books, but Leopold was soon able to use his earlier drawings to produce highly detailed models of other species, and his reputation quickly spread; the task additionally furthering the training of his son and apprentice (and eventual successor), Rudolf Blaschka. Indeed, a year after the success of the glass sea anemones, the family moved to family moved to Dresden to give young Rudolf better educational opportunities.
Contact with Harvard
In about 1880, Rudolf began assisting his father with the models. In that year, they produced 131 Glass sea creature models for the Boston Society of Natural History Museum (now the Museum of Science). These models, along with the ones purchased by Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, were seen by Professor George Lincoln Goodale, who was in the process of setting up the Harvard Botanical Museum. In 1886 the Blaschkas were approached by 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; some reports claim that Goodale saw a few glass orchids in the room where they met, surviving from the work two decades earlier. Leopold was 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 badly damaged by U.S. Customs, but Goodale nonetheless appreciated the fragmentary craftwork and showed them widely – convinced 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. However, having already seen Harvard's recently procured glass marine invertebrates, Professor Goodale - like Professor Reichenbach before him - realized that glass flowers would solve his problem – for, as glass, they were three-dimensional and would retain their color.
Investments require funds, and to cover the expensive enterprise Goodale approached his former student Mary Lee Ware and her mother Elizabeth C. Ware; they were independently wealthy and already liberal benefactors of Harvard's botanical department. Mary convinced her mother to agree to underwrite the consignment of the uncannily lifelike models that enchanted them both. In 1887 the Blaschkas contracted to spend half-time producing the models for Harvard. They continued to spend their remaining time making marine invertebrate models. New arrangements were made to send the models directly to Harvard, where museum staff could open them safely, observed by Customs staff. In 1890 the Blaschkas signed an exclusive ten-year contract with Harvard to make glass flowers for 8,800 marks per year. They modeled a great range of plants (finally, 164 taxonomic families) and plant parts (flowers, leaves, fruits, roots). Some were shown during pollination by insects, others diseased in various ways.
Production of the Glass Flowers
Early in the making of the Glass Flowers, Mary Lee Ware engaged in correspondence with Professor Goodale regarding the making of the collection, one of which contained a remark of Leopold's regarding the false rumor that secret methods were used in the making of the Glass Flowers: "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." On this trend, he also once said that "One cannot hurry glass. It will take its own time. If we try to hasten it beyond its limits, it resists and no longer obeys us. We have to humor it."
The Blaschkas used a mixture of clear and coloured glass, sometimes supported with wire, to produce their models. Many pieces were painted, this work being entirely given to Rudolf. In order to represent plants which were not native to the Dresden area, the two studied the exotic plant collections at Pillnitz Palace and the Dresden Botanical Garden, and also grew some from seed sent from the United States. In 1892, Rudolf was sent on a trip to the Caribbean and the U.S. to study additional plants, making extensive drawings and notes.
Rudolf made a second trip to the U.S. in 1895. While he was overseas - and eleven years into the project - Leopold died. Rudolf continued to work alone, slowing down production so as to achieve higher levels of botanical perfection. By the early twentieth century, he found that he was unable to buy glass of suitably high quality, and so started making his own. This was confirmed by Mary Lee Ware during her 1908 visit to Rudolf in a letter she wrote to the second director of the Botanical Museum, Professor Oakes Ames. This letter appears to confirm the previous statement of Leopold's regarding his son; Miss Ware writes, "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." This missive to Professor Ames was published in January 9, 1961 by the Harvard University Herbaria - Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University Vol. 19, No. 6 - under the title "How Were The Glass Flowers Made?" Indeed and in addition to funding and visiting, Mary took a fairly active role in the project's progress, going so far as to personally unpack each model and making arrangements for Rudolph's fieldwork in the U.S. and Jamaica – the purpose of such trips being to gather and study various plant specimens before returning to the old style Bohemian lamp-working table at which he (and Leopold) worked.
Rudolf continued making models for Harvard until 1938. By then aged 80, old and weary, he announced that he would retire. Neither he nor his father had taken on an apprentice, and Rudolf left no successor - he and his wife, Frieda, being childless. For Harvard alone, Leopold and Rudolf made approximately 4,400 models, 780 showing species at life-size, with others showing magnified details; under 75% are, as of May 21, 2016, on display at the HMNH, (the exhibit itself dedicated to Dr. Charles Eliot Ware, the father of Mary Ware and husband of Elizabeth Ware); the old exhibit contained 3000 models but this number was reduced for renovation purposes. Unlike the Glass sea creatures – "a profitable global mail-order business" – the Glass Flowers were commissioned solely for and are unique to Harvard.
Ultimately, Leopold and Rudolf left a legacy of over ten thousand glass models scattered across museums the world over, mostly maritime but with the Flowers as the most famous, all continuing to inspire both scientists and glass artists alike. They and their spouses were buried together in the Hosterwitz cemetery in Dresden. Finally and in welcome addition, "the Corning Museum and the Botanical Museum of Harvard University jointly purchased the remaining Blaschka studio materials from Gertrud Pones, Mrs. Rudolf (Frieda) Blaschka’s niece, in 1993," thus granting the world access to their workbench and sketches as well; in part due to the pure good fortune that said studio survived the Bombing of Dresden in World War II (luck not shared by the original collection of glass sea anemones purchased by Professor Reichenbach).
Harvard's renovation exhibit
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" 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 Glass sea creature models in a major and equal display. 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.
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- Drawing upon Nature: Studies for the Blaschkas’ Glass Models - http://www.cmog.org/publication/drawing-upon-nature-studies-blaschkas-glass-models-0
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka.|
- The Story of Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka
- The Blaschka Archives, held by the Rakow Library of the Corning Museum of Glass. Retrieved 5 June 2014.
- Natural History Museum, London
- National Museum of Wales
- "The Glass Flowers". Corning Museum of Glass. Corning Museum of Glass. 18 October 2011. Retrieved 5 June 2014.
- Blaschka Marine Inverebrates at Cornell University
- Online gallery of the Cornell Blaschka collection
- Blaschka models at the UCL Grant Museum
- La Fondazione Scienza e Tecnica, Firenze
- Works by or about Leopold Blaschka in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- Works by or about Rudolf Blaschka in libraries (WorldCat catalog)