Every year, more than 100,000 people visit the Glass Flowers. Gardeners come, looking for irises and delphiniums. Cooks come, looking for nutmeg and cacao. Mathematicians come, looking for patterns in pineapples and sunflowers.
Others come without any mission, simply to see with their own eyes these icons of artistry and meticulousness.
The nearly 3,000 models were made by just two men, Leopold Blaschka (1822-1895) and his son Rudolf (1857-1939). Heirs to a long tradition of glass-working in Bohemia, they had moved to Germany and established a studio outside of Dresden.
There, the Blaschkas fashioned jellyfish, sea anemones and other marine invertebrates sought by museums worldwide. Their colorful glass replicas captured the liveliness of organisms usually reduced to shapeless blobs in jars of alcohol.
The Blaschkas’ glass sea creatures drew the attention of Professor George L. Goodale, the first director of Harvard’s Botanical Museum. He had been searching for a better way to represent the flora. “Flowers are perishable,” he explained at the 1890 dedication. “When dried they are distorted, when placed in alcohol they are robbed of their color.” Drawings, while “spirited and truthful,” were flat. Wax flowers or papier-maché, often used in funeral wreaths, were “exaggerated and grotesque.”
Goodale believed glass models were the answer. In 1886, with single-minded determination, he met with the Blaschkas in their German home:
On a shelf in the reception room there stood a vase of brilliant orchids, indicating that the artists were very fond of flowers, and this opened the way. You may imagine my surprise when I found that the flowers of orchids before me were made of glass, and they had stood uninjured, although without protection, in an open room since 1862. What the artists had done once, they could do again, and for their experiments I paid them liberally in advance, and took my leave while they were still shaking their heads and refusing. During the evening, the younger Blaschkas came to the hotel and said that they had decided to try the work.
The first models arrived in 1887, and although they had been broken in customs, Goodale recognized their excellence. With the financial backing of Mary L. Ware and her mother Elizabeth, heirs to a whaling fortune, Goodale succeeded in negotiating a full-time contract with the Blaschkas in 1890. The two artists agreed to make Glass Flowers and nothing else – perhaps little suspecting that the project would take 50 years!
The collection was dedicated as a memorial to Elizabeth’s husband, Dr. Charles E. Ware, a naturalist and prominent professor at Harvard Medical School. Daughter Mary Ware took an active role in the collection, personally unpacking each model and arranging for Rudolf Blaschka’s fieldwork in the U.S. and Jamaica.
The Blaschkas worked at a phenomenal pace. By the time of Leopold’s death in 1895, nearly three-fourths of the models had already been completed. Alone, without apprentices, Rudolf continued the project, always perfecting his technique. He was nearly 80 when the final shipment was sent in 1936.
Although the Glass Flowers are rarely used today in the teaching of botany, they remain timeless.
An online exhibit on processing the Archives of Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka and the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plantsis available here.