Leopold Blaschka was a Bohemian glass worker with a love of natural history. He moved to Dresden after the birth of his son, Rudolph, so that the boy would have better educational opportunities. Blaschka’s paying work was mostly glass eyes and test tubes until Prince Camil de Rohan became intrigued with some botanical models that Leopold had made for himself. The prince had a huge collection of plants and flowers and commissioned orchid models from Blaschka in 1860. That same year the Dresden State Museum asked if he could create glass models of invertebrate creatures. Blaschka could. Museums around Europe began commissioning models of plants and sea creatures and Blaschka soon dropped all his other work.
Rudolph joined his father in the project and the pair turned out thousands of glass models over the years. Harvard became interested in the models and, from 1887, thanks to the genrosity of the Ware family, the Blaschkas worked exclusively for that university, creating more than three thousand botanical models.
Leopold’s first efforts were based largely on Ernst Haeckel‘s famous drawings but after dealing with Rohan, he worked more from preserved or living specimens. Rudolph took a long ocean voyage in 1892 to study plants in North America and the Caribbean.
The models are made of layers of glass sometimes reinforced with metal wires. The colors are powdered glass painted onto the main body, then scratched or formed into leaf veins or other details. The glass was heated over and over again, something which has affected its durability.
The models are very fragile — the first specimens shipped to the United States were broken in Customs — and repairs sometimes need to be done.
But some of the glass seems to be deteriorating as well. Powdery white glass corrosion is visible on some specimens and, in others, parts of the models are separating. Most of the troubles seem to be from models made in the late 1880s and early 90s. Rudolph complained about the quality of glass supplied to him then and began making his own glass after this time.
Probably these museum models could have been done in wax and served the stated purpose as study objects, but the beauty of glass entrances everyone who sees these wonderful creations and their value today is as works of art.
Leopold died in 1895 and Rudolph carried on alone until 1938 when, at the age of 80, he said he was just too tired to continue. He died the next year. The Blaschkas never hired an apprentice and Rudolph had no children. Their methods died with them.
“Flowers Out of Glass” by Nancy Marie Brown. A very good article that gets into the Blaschkas’ methods and attempts to restore and preserve these flowers.
Many museums have put photos of their collections on line. The Harvard collection has been exhibited in several places and a couple of short videos have been made about it.
Dresden photos by Heidi and Hans-Jurgen Koch.
National Museum of Wales.