Blaschkas’ Glass Botanical Models (1886–1936)

Blaschkas’ Glass Botanical Models (1886–1936)

George Lincoln Goodale. From photographic album belonging to Leopold Blaschka. Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass.

Mesembryanthemum (Blaschka)

Tropical and temperate plants continuously bloom in their Victorian cherry wood vitrines as visitors to the Harvard Museum of Natural History marvel at their favorite flowers and the most noxious weeds. These nearly 4,300 botanical models represent roughly 840 species and 170 plant families in an incomparable collection popularly known as the Glass Flowers. Commissioned in 1886 by Prof. George Lincoln Goodale (Fig. 1), then director of the Harvard Botanic Garden, the exhibition was inspired by his desire to represent the full glory of the plant kingdom in the natural history museums that were then being developed at Harvard. This display would also help to supplement botanical courses because the numerous planted beds and greenhouses that Goodale oversaw at the Botanic Garden were subject to New England winters that limited the selection of teaching materials during the academic year.

Goodale searched for something that would be aesthetically pleasing, scientifically accurate, and much appreciated by both botany students and the general public. While peacocks can be stuffed and minerals can be meticulously polished, presenting plants as attractive displays is more problematic. Although lovely botanical models fashioned from wax-covered silk or papier-mâché were available as teaching aids, Goodale was impressed by the idea of using glass after he saw the zoological models in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, which housed detailed glass models made by Leopold Blaschka and his son, Rudolf. This allowed members of Harvard’s faculty to use replicas of organisms to easily point out morphological features during lectures. Goodale realized that the fragile zoological creatures were much like fresh fruits and flowers that quickly decay and could never hold up as an exhibition. He also knew that dried, pressed herbarium specimens and color plates from botanical texts had a limited appeal.

In 1886, Goodale traveled to Dresden, Germany, where the Blaschka family lived. Despite their initial resistance, Goodale ultimately persuaded the glass artists to accept a commission for a few plant models. The first shipment of these models was badly damaged by customs inspectors who hastily unpacked them, but the wafer-thin petals and leaves were convincingly lifelike. Goodale and his former Radcliffe College students, including Mary Lee Ware, believed that the Blaschkas’ skilled hands and extensive botanical knowledge could create a most remarkable exhibition.

Mary Lee Ware. Photo dated 1907. Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass.

Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka agreed to a part-time, three-year contract. When it was time to renew the agreement in 1890, Goodale convinced Elizabeth Ware and her daughter, Mary (Fig. 2), who had become the benefactors of the Glass Flowers collection, that a full-time, 10-year term would be more appropriate. The exhibition, which officially became a memorial to Charles Eliot Ware (Elizabeth’s husband and Mary’s father) on May 10, 1890, was titled The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants. This collection represents the diversity of flora, with an emphasis on economically important plants that are used in everything from foods to medicines. The Blaschkas created three additional series of models, which show the life cycle of nonflowering plants such as ferns, mosses, and liverworts; insects and pollination; and blighted apples, pears, and other fruits.

Visitors to the exhibition, particularly gardeners, often ask about the basis of the Blaschkas’ models. Over the years, Goodale brought the artists a wide variety of %%seeds%%, %%cuttings%%, and plants from Cambridge. Since the climate of Saxony is similar to that of New England, the plants grew well. Although there are only a few contemporaneous written accounts of the Blaschkas’ activities, 19th-century photographs of their home reveal the extent of the cultivation on their property. Reference specimens were also obtained from important gardens nearby, such as the Pilnitz Castle gardens and the Royal Dresden Botanic Garden, and from other state arboretums and botanical gardens in Germany. The Blaschkas’ neighbor, the grand duchess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, parted with a mature branch of her fig tree. Male and female flowering branches of the maidenhair tree (Ginkgo biloba L.) were obtained from the Grand Ducal Gardens in Karlsruhe (Baden).

By mid-1890, after they had made models of several hundred species to represent the major plant families, the Blaschkas had begun to exhaust their European sources. Although Rudolf was interested in undertaking a field expedition in North America, Goodale noted: “It seems worthwhile to induce young Mr. Blaschka to try his hand at reproduction of models from dry specimens, exactly as the botanical artists do. He would have to be shown how this sort of work is done, and if the experiment is a success, there will be no limit to the material at command, for we can procure the dried specimens in every stage of development.”1

This implies that the Blaschkas were used to, and preferred to have, living reference material. It also suggests the complications involved in adding exotic or difficult-to-cultivate species to the collection. Judging from some of the flat-looking models, relying on herbarium specimens must have worked for a while. But it later became evident that Rudolf’s request would have to be considered seriously. This is indicated in a letter from Goodale to Elizabeth Ware on April 15, 1890, that outlined the conditions of the newly written contract. The Blaschkas offered to save enough money for Rudolf “to make a voyage to America in the winter of 1891–1892 in order to repair our broken models and make fresh studies.” But Goodale told them “that when the time came for his voyage I would see that he had enough for his expenses. He is anxious to visit South America and study some of [the] plants of great interest in their native forests, which are known to Science only by poor drawings."

Colored pencils and %%drawing%% paper were carefully tucked into his luggage when Rudolf Blaschka left the cozy villa he shared with his parents in Hosterwitz, Germany (the family had moved there in 1888), to begin a journey to study the flora of the West Indies and North America. The northwest trip to Bremen on February 1, 1892, was pleasant until he reached Hanover, where the wagon “shook worse than a stagecoach on a rocky country road...One could hardly balance oneself on one’s seat.” Yet, as the 35-year-old glass artist wrote to his parents later that day, he “found the experience extraordinarily nerve-strengthening and fun."2 Upon arrival, he visited Ehrhorn, Emden & Mayer, shipping agents for the Blaschkas’ models, who arranged travel documents and a first-class cabin on the steamship Saale. He sailed the next day from the northern coastal town of Bremerhaven.

Exhibit of glass flowers at Harvard Botanical Museum, 1892. Rudolf Blaschka is shown in the background. Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass.

Like his fellow passengers, Rudolf endured a southwesterly storm. It blew in as he was enjoying the fresh air on deck, and it continued while he was in the lounge practicing his English, and later when he was ensconced in a luxurious private room. “I took Father’s advice and didn’t participate in the six-o’clock supper,” he recalled in a letter dated February 14, and he was among the few who fared well enough to emerge for breakfast. Ten days later, the ship docked in Hoboken, New Jersey, where William Francis Ganong, a botany instructor at Harvard College, arranged with customs officials for Rudolf’s easy entry. In the same letter, Rudolf reported: “I met Mr. Ganong, a slim man of my height, about my age, and with a black mustache, who concerned himself about me in the most friendly manner and hired a hackney that brought us to the central station [Grand Central Depot] in New York City. The night train at 11 took us (in a sleeping car) to Boston, where we arrived at 7 in the morning.”

Rudolf stayed with George Lincoln Goodale and his family in their Cambridge brownstone. They walked to the Botanical Museum, where, for the first time, Rudolf saw the dazzling exhibition of more than 250 sets of the models that he and his father had created, handsomely displayed in cherry wood vitrines (Fig. 3). He observed, in his letter of February 14, that “an iron staircase leads to the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models on the second [American, third] floor. With delight and emotion, I saw all the old friends united here, and I can report to you with joy that everything, even the oldest things, are still nice in form and color, just as we delivered them.”

He was equally excited about meeting his benefactors, Mrs. Elizabeth Ware, whom he described as “very strong and robust,” and her daughter, Mary Lee Ware, “a large blond lady of very lively temperament,” who regretted that she had been unable to visit the Blaschkas in Hosterwitz. Receiving the hospitality of Boston society and Cambridge academics alike, Rudolf quickly acclimated to life at Harvard. He attended dinner parties, as well as lectures at the Boston Natural History Society, and he viewed the orchid collection of Oakes Ames, who would become the second director of the Botanical Museum and continue the commission for Rudolf’s production of glass models.

Figure 7 Jacaranda filicifolia D. Don from Castleton Gardens, Jamaica. Drawing by Rudolf Blaschka, 1892. Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass.

Rudolf began a diligent study of the flowering plants in the Harvard Botanic Garden, making reference drawings for himself and his father, which continued until the arrangements for fieldwork on Jamaica had been completed. Robert Cameron, the Scottish head gardener, accompanied Rudolf when they finally boarded the steamship Bowden, a banana boat owned by the Boston Fruit Company, for the six-day voyage to the West Indies. They disembarked at Port Antonio, on the northern coast of Jamaica, on February 28, ready to collect the flora.

The island’s varied terrain, including sandy beaches, lush riverbanks, marshlands, forests, and mountains, offers ecosystems supporting tropical, subtropical, and temperate plant communities. The rich flora and fauna had been observed by Europeans from the time that Christopher Columbus returned to Spain with descriptions of the paradise’s diversity. Jamaica sustains more than 3,000 flowering plants, of which a third are endemic. These include hundreds of orchids, which were nurtured by early botanical gardens. In 1862, Castleton Gardens, located in the parish of Saint Mary, was planted with material that had been rescued from the frequently flooded Bath Botanical Garden in Saint Thomas, the second-oldest garden in the Western Hemisphere. Rudolf studied these species, particularly those of the Croton, Bougainvillaea, and Jacaranda (Fig. 4). In 1892, Castleton Gardens was being developed into one of the most significant collections on the island.

Hope Gardens in Kingston, Jamaica, which was renamed the Royal Botanical Garden in the 1950s, was founded as a public garden on the Hope family estate. It had been established only two decades before Rudolf Blaschka’s visit. In a letter dated March 6, he related:

Hope Garden [sic], where I am now staying, is still newly planted, as just four years ago thick forest was in this place, but there are still many old trees and useful plants that greatly interest me. So I could study many flowers and fruits of tropical bananas, for example, the coco tree, mango (Mangifer indica), the star apple (Chrysophyllum), and both of the coffee varieties [that] are grown in Jamaica, Coffea arabica and liberica. Today I had the pleasure of seeing the flowers of the cinnamon tree, Cinnamomum officinale (Fig. 5), which grow almost wild here. It is very interesting to see such plants; for us at home, in the garden or in the greenhouse, they grow to be only small trees or bushes, while here they are massive. 

Cinnamomum “officinale” (currently C. verum J. Presl), Cinnamon, Lauraceae, Model 447 (1894), L. and R. Blaschka, Drawing no. 19, Colored pencil on paper, 21 cm x 26.7 cm.

On the island, Rudolf and Cameron were occupied with such practical matters as transporting the microscope, %%drawing%% supplies, glass specimen jars, collecting equipment, and luggage, either by sea or by land, from the various sites. Rudolf took these challenges in stride. From a banana wagon pulled by donkeys, he viewed what he described (in a letter of March 6) as “the romantic, wonderful, beautiful mountain valleys and . . . slopes [that] will remain unforgettable for me” on the way to Castleton Gardens. He left “the pleasure of exploring the mountains, and the terrible hot sun for collecting plants, to Mr. Cameron.”

Their routine was soon established. After Rudolf had completed his %%drawings%%, Cameron pressed and dried the herbarium specimens and pickled any extra flowers or fruits in the local white rum, diluted with water. In his “airy room” at his “quiet work, just like at home,” Rudolf produced about five drawings a day. He ultimately made detailed observations of 106 tropical plants from Hope Gardens, Castleton Gardens, Port Antonio, Spanish Town, and other areas during his month-long stay on Jamaica. “It is most important that I study these things here in the tropics because they are mostly trees and shrubs that would not bloom in greenhouses,” he wrote on March 21.

Although Rudolf had “a very small camera” on loan from the Botanical Museum, he regarded it as a waste of his time. “Photographs are totally unnecessary to our studies,” he reported on March 23, “since I would much rather draw than toil with boring photography.” Goodale had attempted to teach Cameron how to document the plants and landscapes, but the gardener ignored this task.

When the tropical representatives of important economic plants had been documented, the Botanical Museum’s mission had been served, but life in Jamaica was not all work. Rudolf socialized with his hosts, played the piano at gatherings, and found, on those balmy evenings, that “it was also pleasant to sit on the veranda, which was surrounded by the wonderful blossoms of Datura arbora” (letter of March 21).

Many aspects of island life fascinated Rudolf, but the banana industry held a special attraction—or at least it passed the time during the six-day return voyage on a steamship that was loaded with the green harvest. Rudolf had already acquired a taste for bananas, which were shipped twice a week to Boston distributors, and Goodale ate bananas daily with his lunch. Prompted to try them, Rudolf acknowledged, on February 19, that “they taste good, and I like eating them.” Catching the spirit of economic botany, he shared another experience with his parents on April 10 by mailing samples of “the best sort of Jamaican coffee, Coffea liberica, from the plant, and I’m sending you the ones I picked so dear Mother can make real Jamaican coffee.” Although the drinks, foods, and spices of Jamaican cuisine must have fascinated him during his visit, he rarely commented on them, preferring to discuss the models of tropical comestibles, including bananas and coffee.

Figure 6. William F. Ganong (left) and Rudolf Blaschka, 1892 field season. Photo dated April 28, 1892. Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass.

Upon his return to Massachusetts, Rudolf allayed his parents’ fears about the yellow fever epidemic that had been reported on Jamaica. He also assured them that his letters from Cambridge would reach Germany in only 12 days, instead of the 21 to 23 days required for communications that had been sent from Jamaica. Based in Cambridge from April 5, Rudolf spent the week %%drawing%% species of elms, American hazelnut, willows, and other plants at the Arnold Arboretum and the Botanic Garden. Entertainment was never lacking. He attended a circus performance with William Ganong, ascended the Bunker Hill Monument, saw friends at a Boston Natural History Society meeting, and dined with various families.

Rudolf’s delay in setting out immediately for the West was resolved when Ganong agreed to accompany him as his field partner (Fig. 6). In many ways, this Canadian botanist was a good choice, for he spoke German and was interested in plant communities. He would later make significant scientific contributions to the newly emerging study of ecology. Although they had $600 at hand and about a $3 per diem for food, Ganong believed that they could reduce expenses by boarding with individual families. They planned to travel by train directly to Chicago and then through Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico before stopping to collect specimens in Arizona and southern California. After completing about two months of fieldwork, they would return by way of San Francisco and Colorado on the Northern Pacific train.

Finally, on April 12, they set out, dressed in lightweight three-piece wool suits, as was the custom. The next day, the avuncular Goodale wrote to Mrs. Ware, who had financed the fieldwork: “Rudolf started last night at 6:45 with Mr. Ganong. They went off in good spirits and promised to let us know frequently about their movements. I shall, of course, keep you informed.” 

In a letter of April 18, Rudolf reported that “it made me very happy to travel through the unbelievable stretches of land of North America to see the different interesting cities and landscapes. . . . The coast of Lake Erie . . . offered many interesting views and landscapes while the vegetation was still in its winter state.” He and Ganong spent a day in Chicago exploring by “streetcars and the elevated line in every direction and looked at the buildings of the world’s fair, the Art Museum, the skyscrapers,” and other noteworthy attractions.

Having seen the metropolis, they boarded a comfortable first-class sleeping car and left Chicago behind. “The plains of Kansas seemed endless,” Rudolf wrote in the same letter, adding that on “the wild prairie in Colorado . . . we could go for hours without seeing a house. As far as the eye can see, there is nothing but plains full of dry grasses, which immediately catch fire from the locomotive and sometimes keep burning along the train.” Then came the “amazingly beautiful” trip through the Rocky Mountains, down to the savannas, and finally into New Mexico, “where herds of thousands of animals [buffaloes] are grazing.” The grasslands blended into “hundreds of miles where nothing grows but one species of yucca, cacti, and desert plants.”

On Easter Sunday, they reached the Rio Grande, which was then “the border between the United States and the Republic of Mexico.” They explored the border town of El Paso, Texas, and took a tramway into Mexico, but the vegetation was unpromising and they moved on.

Figure 7. San Diego Mission, to which Rudolf Blaschka traveled. The man shown in the photograph is not identified. Rakow Research Library

After a total of six nights spent on the train, Rudolf described himself “as used to the shaking as an old sailor.” Fortunately, they reached Tempe, by way of Maricopa, Arizona, during the few weeks of spring when the desert plants are in full bloom. The English hotelier and his Bavarian wife offered “nice rooms” for $1.50, food at $1 a head, and conversation in German. Rudolf and Ganong planned “to stay a few days because there’s a lot of good study material” (letter of April 18). They took group excursions or rented wagons, riding out into the chaparral early in the morning, but Rudolf usually lingered in order to draw, and he informed his parents on April 22 that he had created 25 studies in the Tempe area.

As they crossed the California border en route to San Diego, Rudolf remarked on the huge desert, “where nothing grows on the cracked sand and rocky %%ground%%.” The landscape changed as the huge yucca species and blooming opuntias gave way to the vibrant plantings, agricultural fields, and lush orchards that surrounded the city (Fig. 10). In San Diego, Rudolf collected less frequently and spent more time in the hotel, sketching what had been brought to him from distant sites. He did travel to Tijuana, Coronado, Hesperia, and San Bernardino to observe the forests of conifers. Agua Caliente (now Palm Springs), their next stop, was considered a boom town that had entered a period of decline, but this remote area offered new plant species, a hot water spa, and a comfortable hotel owned by a physician- botanist, Dr. Murry.

Rudolf’s letters home were filled with accounts of his new experiences. On May 15, he wrote, “This scientific gypsy life is fun, but I will be very glad to exchange it for the quiet life I’m accustomed to.” Ganong reported to Goodale that his field partner was an industrious but homesick traveler who was unlikely to welcome the Southeastern trip that was being planned to follow their return to Cambridge. With the flurry of work and the frequent change in diet, climate, and conditions, Rudolf became ill in Oakland, and he was on the mend for the next two weeks. He later stated that he had been diagnosed with malaria, and an injury from a cactus spine certainly did not help his disposition. In addition, he complained that he was being treated poorly, money was being spent too liberally, and he was often unable to see plants in situ as he had wished.

But on they went, collecting near Colton, Fresno, Oakland, and San Francisco. Rudolf’s letter of May 15 reported that the bright orange-red California poppies, Eschscholzia californica Cham., were “so common and grow so thickly that the mountains glow orange,” and that the ubiquitous clover, Orthocarpus purpurascens Benth., provided “a soft pink color in great masses.” Outside Santa Cruz, they visited the sequoia forests, concluding their productive tour of California.

They then headed eastward, and by May 22, they arrived in Colorado Springs. Two days later, Rudolf informed his parents:

Figure 8. South Cheyenne Canyon, photographed by W. E. Hook, Colorado Springs. Rakow Research Library Bib ID 95858.

The botanical results were surprisingly rich. Through the gorge, between rock formations, there rushed a small river surrounded by various vegetation [Fig. 8], where we found a great many things in bloom that were much prettier flowers than those in the desert [Fig. 9]. Upon arrival at home [his hotel] yesterday, I quickly drew two more species and today five. Tomorrow I will have to study again because today we found several new things. I am now working in a very casual manner in order not to tax myself too much. . . . Don’t think that if only I could work more quickly we could collect much more; at this time of year, there isn’t a large selection. In addition to that, the people in Cambridge are picky; they don’t want this or that species because it’s already represented, etc. In order to complete 600 to 800 species, I would have to spend the whole year wandering around America, and I really don’t want to do that. Until now, I have drawn and studied 200 species, and I think that, when I leave America, I will have collected 400. At any rate, we found so much good material here that we decided to stay until Saturday.

The field partners endured a 40-hour train trip from Colorado to St. Louis, Missouri, where the largest botanical garden in America had been established in 1856. They had already met its director, William Trelease, when he was in San Diego. Having access to the Missouri Botanic Garden saved time in the field because the plants were close at hand and already identified. Even Darlingtonia, the elusive pitcher plant that had been requested by Goodale, for which they had searched the Shasta Mountains, was in bloom here. Five days later, they were back on the road again, with stops in Chicago, Buffalo, and several locations in Ontario, Canada, including Clinton and Niagara Falls. On June 7, they arrived in Cambridge, where Goodale reported to the Wares that “a more homesick body than R.B. was never seen in the world. He has decided to repair the unmended breaks, and to see a seedsman in Southwick [Massachusetts], but he has solemnly promised his father to be back in Germany by ‘Gooseberry time,’ that is, the last of June. He is looking very well and is anxious to get at work at the models again.”

Figure 9. Cacti (Opuntia bigelovii) near Coyote Hills, Colorado desert, 1890. Rakow Research Library Bib ID 95862.

On June 10, Goodale informed the Wares that, with Rudolf’s collections in Jamaica and the United States, he believed that he had enough specimens to keep him and his father busy for at least three years. Goodale also thought that they could spend another three years on the %%seeds%% and %%cuttings%% that Rudolf had brought back with him on June 17. Although the surviving archive of specimens, drawings, and labels is incomplete, Rudolf probably documented upwards of 350 species, and he and his father subsequently created more than 250 sets of models based on this 1892 field season.

The work proved so valuable that Rudolf returned for a second field season three years later. Capitalizing on his 1892 plan to collect in the Southeast, Goodale suggested that this trip culminate in Mexico. Rudolf, who was by now a confident traveler, took a train to Bremen, purchased his ticket on the Fulda, and departed from Bremerhaven on June 9. After battling rough seas, the ocean liner arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey, on June 18. When the frugal Rudolf learned the price for hiring a carriage to New York’s Grand Central Depot, he sent his extra bags ahead to the Botanical Museum. He then took a ferry across the Hudson River and a streetcar to the train station. The 11 a.m. express train delivered him in Boston six and a half hours later. He decided on the Thorndike Hotel, booked a room at $1 a night, and arrived punctually at the Goodales’ home in Cambridge for dinner at 8 p.m.

The problems that had been experienced in 1892 were discussed openly and resolved. Rudolf informed his parents on June 19 that Goodale had retained, as an assistant, “a young man, a poor student named [Joseph William] Blankinship, who traveled extensively with great success in plant collecting.” After Rudolf had made a few studies at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, a quiet room in the Botanical Museum was reserved for him so that he could draw the rare mountain plants that had just arrived from New Hampshire. Within a few days, he and Blankinship, who was only five years younger, were off to the coastal marshes near Plymouth, Massachusetts, where Rudolf acknowledged that he had a worthy field companion. When they returned to Cambridge, Rudolf relocated to an apartment and ate with the students at the Foxcroft Club near the museum. His mission now was to study all of the flowering species in the vicinity before he and Blankinship headed south. In Concord, they found water plants in bloom. On July 1, Rudolf wrote: “Mr. Blankinship undressed without any hesitation and pulled out these plants, although the water reached his hips. If I had been alone, I never would have done this.”

Ten days later, Rudolf and Blankinship began their trip south, although their exact itinerary was still uncertain. They planned to take a train to Washington, D.C., for a sightseeing tour before boarding a steamer down the Potomac River through the Chesapeake Bay to the harbor at Norfolk, Virginia. The numbers of flowering plants they found in each place they visited would determine the length of their stay. Wilmington, North Carolina, was the next stop before they collected indigenous plants in the mountains. Afterward, they planned to go to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and possibly through parts of Georgia and Alabama, before heading west across Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, and the Indian Territory of Oklahoma. A train from Texas would then take them to Mexico City. Cyrus G. Pringle, a Vermont botanist who specialized in the rich Mexican flora, would join them in August for a few weeks.

The delay in receiving letters from Germany, which often had to be forwarded to remote locations, is reflected in the fact that Rudolf was utterly unaware that his father had suffered a stroke on June 27, followed by a second, fatal one on July 3. His chatty letters focused on chaotic Fourth of July celebrations, excursions to nearby towns, and the completion of his 61st %%drawing%%. In his closings, he always noted that he had not received any letters and was longing for news from home.

The uncertainty of his movements made it difficult to redirect his mail. The physician’s letter concerning the circumstances of Leopold’s death waited at the Botanical Museum, along with a heartbreaking letter from Mrs. Blaschka that had been written five days later. In that communication, dated July 8, she disclosed her husband’s last wish: “In his delirium, his intention was to go to New York because there it would be much nicer than Hosterwitz, his Rudolf would be with him, and he could work together with him.” While she wanted her son to return as soon as possible, she also reassured him that the priest had given a worthy eulogy at the funeral, and now close friends, her sister, and her maid were taking good care of her. Meanwhile, the travelers continued south, not staying long enough in any one place to telegraph their address to the museum so that letters could be forwarded. Clearly the fieldwork was going well. Rudolf’s letters home continued with exuberant descriptions of new sights and progress. By the time he left Virginia, he had finished his 70th sketch. On July 15, he wrote: “I wish the illustrating and studying would go much faster, but often I find totally strange species of plants in my hands that require a thorough study. Mostly I think it is good to investigate everything locally instead of [making] hasty sketches. Because those are very hard to read later, it is my intention to finish as much as possible.”

Figure 10. Models of glass flowers in the Blaschkas’ studio before they were shipped to the Harvard Botanical Museum. Probably photographed by Rudolf Blaschka. Photo dated October 1891. Rakow Research Library, Bib ID 95860

When he reached %%Chimney%% Rock, North Carolina, the letters could finally be rerouted, and on July 23 he learned the devastating news of his father’s death, nearly three weeks after the fact. He immediately returned to Cambridge, leaving Blankinship to collect plants as planned. Goodale was supportive and helpful. They renegotiated the contract for the models as a one-man operation at twice the price. Goodale secured a parlor car heading for New York City, and he saw Rudolf and his reference materials aboard. The next day, Rudolf boarded the steamship EMS, and he arrived home on August 9. He then worked in his studio, sometimes with the assistance of his mother, to complete the models his father had begun (Fig. 10). At that point, roughly 70 percent of the collection had been jointly made by Leopold and Rudolf. Rudolf then created 62 sets of models from the 1895 reference specimens.

From 1896 through 1936, when the last shipments of models were received, Rudolf added more than 200 species, including several series on grasses, insect pollination, and the progression of fruit blight. The contracts, which were renewed while Goodale oversaw the project, were resumed after World War I, and they continued in 1923 with Oakes Ames, who became the next director of the Botanical Museum.

Mary Lee Ware remained an understanding benefactor, which allowed Rudolf to take the time he needed for glassmaking experiments to develop his own colored glasses. There were years in which he did not send any models, but he kept her, Goodale, and, later, Ames informed of his undertakings. Mary encouraged the artist, and she always came to his aid financially. She also visited him and his mother in 1928, and she reported his progress to Ames on October 3. She said of the 71- year-old Rudolf: “I was daunted to see what seemed a little old man, legs that were not strong, very rounded, stooped shoulders and an exceedingly white face. He must have dropped nearly two inches in height, his hands were somewhat out of shape from rheumatism.” Mary realized that he was anxious for her to see the new work because it had been six years since the last shipment. After he had been reassured of her satisfaction, Rudolf showed her his new techniques for enameling the models with his powdered glasses. “His movements are quiet, deft, soft in laying down or taking up where speed or a miscalculated movement might ruin the work of hours, . . .” she wrote. “It all leaves you breathless that anyone can and will do such work. . . . Mr. Blaschka’s head and bearing are very expressive, and I wished I could catch a photograph of his profile as he stood for a few moments, a %%plaque%% with a model on it held in both hands. His whole expression of absorbed, concentrated study was worth keeping, had it been possible.”

Rudolf continued to work with that same devotion and fascination on his last series of models: rotting fruits and fungi. Unfinished models remained on his lampworking table when he died on May 1, 1939. With loving reverence for those models, his wife packed and stored the studio materials until they were purchased decades later.


1. Undated but pre-1892 typewritten sheet by Goodale titled “Suggestions for Developing the Collection of Glass-Models.”
2. All of the quotations attributed to Rudolf Blaschka in this account are excerpted from letters he wrote to his parents.


Susan M. Rossi-Wilcox, Administrator for the Glass Flowers Collection and Curatorial Associate in the Botanical Museum–Harvard University Herbaria

This article was published in %%Drawing%% upon Nature: Studies for the Blaschkas’ Glass Models by Susan M. Rossi-Wilcox and David Whitehouse (Corning, NY: Corning Museum of Glass, 2007).

Published on January 15, 2013