My Blog List

30 January 2013

The Glass Flowers by R. & L. Blaschka at Harvard's Natural History Museum

Panicum boreale: Panic Grass by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka
Photograph by Hillel Burger,
courtesy The Botanical Museum, Harvard University. 

Remember, no matter what your eyes may tell you, they are not real. 
They are made of glass. From a taped tour of the Ware Collection


Tucked away in the Natural History Museum at Harvard is a cultural treasure: several thousand exquisite flower specimens, perfectly correct in every detail, blown from glass by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. The story of how these masterpieces of artistic and scientific observation came to be is as fascinating as the pieces themselves. German glass artists Leopold Blaschka (1822-1895) and his son Rudolf (1857-1939) came from a long line of glassblowers. When asked by an incredulous admirer and patron of their work if they had invented specialized tools or new technologies to produce such miracles of craft, Leopold replied:

"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, and he lived to be eighty-three years of age. My father was about as old, and Rudolf hopes my hand will be steady for many years yet. I am now between sixty and seventy and very young; am I not, Rudolf?"(Leopold Blaschka in a letter to Mary Lee Ware, 1889)

Echinocereus engelmannii: cactus family by Leopold and
Rudolf Blaschka. Photo by Hillel Burger,
courtesy The Botanical Museum, Harvard University.

The following is excerpted from "The Glass Flowers at Harvard" by Richard Evans Schultes and William A. Davis:


"The truth, then, is that no secret process ever went into the manufacture of the models. All the techniques employed were known to glassworkers of the period. The only difference was the combination in one individual of the meticulous skill unmatched patience, accurate observation, and deep love of the subject that the two Blaschkas brought to all of their work. These models have been described as "an artistic marvel in the field of science and a scientific marvel in the field of art – certainly a more apt observation would be difficult to imagine."


A Blaschka Iris, with buds and faded blooms.
Photo by Hillel Burger, courtesy The Botanical Museum, Harvard University.


"On April 16, 1890, father and son glass artists Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka signed a ten-year agreement to make plant models exclusively for Harvard University. This relationship with Harvard would ultimately span a half century and culminate in one of the most unique and breathtakingly beautiful collections ever created."



Malus pumila Emperor Alexander Apple (affected by apple scab disease), 1932.
Rudolf Blaschka. Photo by Hillel Burger,
Courtesy The Botanical Museum, Harvard University.


"The Glass Flowers collection was commissioned by Harvard Botanical Museum Director George Goodale and financed by Boston residents Elizabeth C. and Mary Lee Ware. The Ware Collection of Glass Models of Plants, as it is officially known, consists of 4,400 models that replicate the tiniest details of plant anatomy with astounding precision."



 Nepenthes Sanguinea: Flytrap,
 
by Rudolf Blaschka. Photo Hillel Burger, 
courtesy The Botanical Museum, Harvard University.


These works, so beautifully preserving the ephemeral, have been described as   masterpieces, works of art, scientific marvels, and as physical equivalents of Mozart's compositions. The poet Mark Doty described them in this way:


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.
 
-Mark Doty, “The Ware Collection of Glass 
Flowers and Fruit, Harvard Museum,” in 
My Alexandria, 1993 

If you'd care to learn more about these fascinating artists and their works, I've included 2 videos here.  The first, from the Corning Museum of Glass, concerns the Blaschkas' lives and their work: http://youtu.be/rHOx5H5vNx4

The second video is a YouTube tour of the Ware Collection with close views of many of the specimens. Enjoy! http://youtu.be/RZZffuyUIKQ

14 comments:

  1. Hello Erika, These glass models fill me with amazement every time I come across them. Although the flowers are much prettier, in their technical and colorful perfection they remind me of the 18th century wax medical models.

    I have read that the students at Harvard pointedly ignore the Ware/Blaschka flowers, presumably as being too much of a tourist trap.
    --Road to Parnassus

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Jim,
      Thank you for your comment! I agree with you-- I never tire of seeing these flowers--have you seen the invertebrates that predate them? Wonderful! I can imagine that you're right about the Harvard students... Undergraduates especially can be a bland, self-interested lot, don't you think?
      Warm regards,
      Erika

      Delete
  2. Dear Erika - I am delighted to learn about these glass botanical flowers and fruits. They are exactly the kind of thing I love. The artistry that has gone into making them is mind blowing, I am just heading over now to view the close ups and learn more about them on your videos.
    thank you - lovely post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I just had a thought that you may be interested to see a post I did about 18th century Mrs Delaney who made flowers out of paper.
      http://wherefivevalleysmeet.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/mrs-delany-1700-1788.html

      Delete
    2. Dear Rosemary,
      I'm so pleased that you found this post interesting. I can't get enough of these deeply impressive works, and am so so happy to have learned of Mrs. Delaney's equally stunning masterpieces! Thank you for sharing that link with me-- I LOVED it and will be placing an Amazon order for "The Paper Garden" shortly... I am fascinated by people like Mrs. Delaney, so intellectually curious and talented-- I would have liked to have known her. Do you ever feel as if you were born too late?!!
      Warm regards,
      Erika

      Delete
    3. Hello Rosemary,
      I just received my book about Mrs. Delaney-- wonderful! Thanks again-- I think this will be one of those books that I buy again and again as a gift for friends and family...
      Warm regards,
      Erika

      Delete
  3. These are amazing, Erika! I've never heard of this collection, but I'm getting multiple hints from reading various blogs that a trip to Cambridge is in order! Now I'm off to see the videos!

    Thanks, Mark

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Mark,
      I confess I thought of you as I was assembling this post-- I thought you'd enjoy seeing these spectacular pieces..! An amazing combination of art and science, don't you think? And an homage to the power of searing human focus and observation... Indeed, it's worth travelling to Cambridge just for this alone. I for one could spend all day there, annoying the tourists and botanical clubs that frequently visit. Enjoy the videos!
      Warm regards,
      Erika

      Delete
  4. Hello Erika:
    Well, you have completely captivated us here with these most exquisite glass structures. We have never heard of this collection and we have pored over these images with amazement. The detail, colours and botanical accuracy are breathtaking. How we should love to see them at first hand. One can but imagine the years of technical training, patience and skill needed to create these treasures. Yes, one lifetime is insufficient, one needs it to be in the generational genes!!!

    Thank you so much for this wonderful post!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Dear Jane and Lance,
    I'm so pleased tat you found this post interesting! These are indeed masterpieces, and it's incredible to me that, as fragile as they are, they traveled by boat from Germany to Cambridge.... Apparently, the packing system that the Blaschkas developed for their safe transport has been the subject of fascination as well!

    I thought the notion of trans-generational expertise was so interesting, and it reminded me of a conversation with a very proud Spaniard from a very old family: when asked by a wealthy American how he could achieve the Spaniard's exceptional gardens, the Spaniard replied: "first, get a gardener whose great great great (and more greats) grandfather planted the original garden. Then, simply wait 300 years, with the same family tending the garden, and only then will you have it."
    Yes, so often the best things can't simply be bought--they take time....The Blaschkas knew this: their lives were invested in developing their craft, an act that I fear will not be repeated... Perhaps, if you ever make the trip over to the US, you might like to add a stop in Cambridge!
    Warm regards,
    Erika

    ReplyDelete
  6. Dear Erika,
    All I could say when I read this post was 'good heavens!'
    I have never seen anything like it.
    The cactus in particular I thought wonderful.
    I would love to go and have a look at this collection and if we should be lucky enough to journey to America it will be high up on our list of things to do!
    Bye for now
    Kirk

    ReplyDelete
  7. Dear Kirk,
    Thank you for your kind words-- good heavens, indeed! Was it Yeats who said that no fine thing can be made without much laboring? I think that should have been the Blaschka family motto! I'm sure you would enjoy a trip to the American east coast-- so many wonderful cities within a very short distance of one another... If you visit Cambridge, there are many beautiful libraries including, my favorite, the Widener, whose story is fascinating...Perhaps a post is in order!
    Warm regards,
    Erika

    ReplyDelete
  8. Absolutely stunning and unlike anything I've seen! Thanks for introducing this collection to me, Erika. I have never been to Harvard's Natural History Museum. Definitely will plan a trip there just for this collection. And to tour Boston MFA's Art of the Americas wing.
    Cheers,
    Loi

    ReplyDelete
  9. Dear Loi,
    Thank you for your message! I'm so pleased to have introduced this amazing work to you. I think you'd really enjoy visiting Harvard's Natural History museum the next time you're in Boston-- these are works that won't be repeated in our time, when the notion of spending a life learning such a specific craft is not valued and is otherwise impossible for so many reasons... Boston is such a wonderful city--the MFA is one of my favorite places as well....enjoy!!
    Warm regards,
    Erika

    ReplyDelete