Art & Culture

Wild About Blaschka Glass Specimens

Scientific specimens are nothing out of the ordinary for Harvard University, but the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants is something truly unique. 

A close up of a glass model of an aster flower, which has purple petals surrounding a yellow center. The sculpture is so realistic it looks like a living plant.
Glass model of an Aster sp. at Harvard. Photo via Artsy/Harvard University Herbaria.

Today, we have high-resolution photography and other technological tools that allow us to examine animal and plant species. In the 19th century, however, the examination of specimens—animals and plants collected from the wild—was a primary method of scientific discovery. This presented problems, particularly for botanical and invertebrate specimens, which lost their colour and form when preserved. 

A close up of a glass model of an rhododendron flower, which has orange petals and yellow stamens. The sculpture is so realistic it looks like a living plant.
Glass model of an Rhododendron sp. at Harvard. Photo via Artsy/Harvard University Herbaria.

Born in Bohemia in 1822, Leopold Blaschka came from a family of glass artists that stretched back generations. Initially, his glasswork focused on costume jewelry and other high-end consumer products, however, he developed a fascination with invertebrate sea creatures when a voyage to American resulted in his ship being becalmed for two weeks. Thus began a rendering of the natural world through glass that would result in hundreds of lifelike models of invertebrates and plants in museums and universities across Europe and North America.

A glass model of a sea creature on a black background. The creature has branches like a tree, with translucent bubble and frond-like appendages.
Forskalia contorta glass model by Leopold Blaschka. Vassil, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Leopold created his first collection of invertebrate models at the behest of Ludwig Reichenbach, from the natural history museum in Dresden, Germany. Exquisitely detailed, these glass models did what preserved specimens could not – retain the color and shape of the animals. Other museums and collectors quickly caught on to the value of Leopold’s models, allowing him to create a successful mail order business, shipping models of sea anemones, jellyfish, and other ocean invertebrates around the world. 

A glass model of a squid with long tendrils. The model has a lifelike realism.
Chiroteuthis veranyi glass model by Leopold Blaschka. Vassil, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

It might seem an impossible task, convincing a well-known artist like Leopold to give up a successful business creating glass sea animals in exchange for an annual contract to make glass plant specimens, but George Goodall, curator of the Harvard Natural History Museum managed to do so. The result was a collection of over 4,300 glass models, representing 780 species of flowers, produced over a fifty year period by Leopold and his son, Rudolf. 

A black and white photo of an older couple wearing Victorian clothing. They are seated in front of a small building. Their son stands behind them.
Leopold and his wife Caroline, with Rudolf standing behind. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s almost impossible to describe how lifelike the Harvard Glass Flowers are. From the dusting of pollen to the replication of tiny hairs on the leaves, each one is a perfect replica of the living original, as if someone plucked it from the forest and displayed it

Leopold and Rudolf used lampworking—a technique where glass is shaped beneath the flame of a torch, rather than blown—to make their creations. The level of detail is so precise that many people thought the Blaschka’s used a secret technique to create their works. Leopold refuted this, explaining that it was generations of skill that gave them the ability to create these works. 

“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.”

A glass specimen is displayed in a scientific manner, with descriptive labels indicating it is Canada Wild Ginger. The glass model shows a plant with rounded leaves.
A glass model of Asarum canadense, on display at Harvard. Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Harvard Glass Flowers were restored in 2016, and the exhibit is open to the public