Blaschkas’ Glass Models of Invertebrate Animals (1863–1890)

Blaschkas’ Glass Models of Invertebrate Animals (1863–1890)

Leopold Blaschka
Rudolf Blaschka

The story of the Blaschkas begins in the small town of Böhmisch Aicha (now Cˇesky´ Dub in the Czech Republic), where Leopold’s father continued the family tradition of flameworking. When Leopold was a student, his favorite  subjects were natural history and painting, and a visiting artist urged him to pursue a career in art. However, after serving an apprenticeship as a goldsmith and gem cutter in nearby Turnau (now Turnov), Leopold entered the family business of making costume jewelry and other fancy goods out of metal and flameworked glass. The catalog of its displays at London’s Great Exhibition in 1851 gives an indication of the range of the wares:

BLASCHKA & SONS, Liebenau, Bohemia— Manufacturers.
Paste, for artificial precious stones, beads, glass buttons, lustre pendants, articles in pinchbeck, &c.1

Leopold suffered two devastating losses. In 1850, his first wife died of cholera. His father died two years later. In 1853, the grieving Leopold took time off and visited the United States. On the outward journey, his ship was becalmed for two weeks near the Azores, and Leopold passed the time collecting and %%drawing%% jellyfish and other marine invertebrates. Apart from illustrations in books, he had never before seen such animals, and their glasslike transparency fascinated him.

Leopold’s description of what he saw (in a translation kindly provided by Henri Reiling) conveys his sense of wonder—a sense that he later expressed in his glass models. Here, he describes phosphorescent creatures observed after dark:

It is a beautiful night in May. Hopeful, we look out over the darkness of the sea, which is as smooth as a mirror; there emerges all around in various places a flashlike bundle of light beams, as if it is surrounded by thousands of sparks, that form true bundles of fire and of other bright lighting spots, and the seemingly mirrored stars. There emerges close before us a small spot in a sharp greenish light, which becomes ever larger and larger and finally becomes a bright shining sunlike figure.

Despite his love of marine invertebrates, the first glass models that Leopold made, following his return to Europe, were of plants, not animals. After the death of his wife, he had sought consolation in collecting, studying, and painting plants, and in the late 1850s, he began to create models of plants for his own amusement. These models came to the attention of Prince Camille de Rohan, an aristocratic horticulturist who had established a world-famous garden on one of his estates, at Sychrov Castle, not far from Aicha. Between 1860 and 1862, the prince exhibited about 100 models of orchids and other exotic plants, which he displayed on two artificial tree trunks in his palace in Prague. The orchids do not survive, but we suspect that the bouquet illustrated in Figure 1 (^^79.3.90^^) is a rare example of Leopold’s early experiments with models of plants. (The bouquet is completely unlike the botanical models made for Harvard in and after 1887, and the colored glass from which it was made is closely similar to the glass used for the earliest invertebrate models in and after 1863.)

Bouquet Leopold Blaschka

In a letter of 1896 that is preserved at Harvard University, Rudolf Blaschka provided an important insight into his father’s work, supplementing the information contained in the catalog of the Great Exhibition (see above). When Leopold entered the business, it consisted of making costume jewelry assembled from glass and metal components, metal attachments for the lusters in chandeliers, and other fancy goods. At an unknown date, the business expanded to include flameworked laboratory equipment. In or just after 1864, Leopold was commissioned to produce brooches and other jewelry decorated with flameworked flowers: forget-me-nots, violets, and roses. He also produced flameworked glass eyes in various colors and sizes. Some of these were for people who had lost an eye, and others were for taxidermists who supplied the growing demands of natural history museums for animals whose skins were preserved and mounted for display. Leopold’s production of jewelry ceased about 1873, but the manufacture of glass eyes and scientific apparatus continued until the 1880s.

The prince also gave Leopold an introduction to Prof. Ludwig Reichenbach, director of both the botanical garden and the natural history museum in Dresden. Subsequently, Leopold’s models were exhibited in that city’s botanical garden, and in a museum in Liège, Belgium, where they were destroyed in a fire.

Leopold now moved his family from Aicha to Dresden, and, in 1863, Reichenbach commissioned him to make models of sea anemones to be displayed in the natural history museum. These glass anemones attracted the attention of other museum directors, and Reichenbach predicted that Leopold had a promising future as a maker of scientific models.

Reichenbach’s prediction proved to be correct. Indeed, such was Leopold’s success that, at the age of 41, he turned his back on the other business and devoted most of his energy to the making of models of invertebrate animals.

It is easy to see why Leopold became a successful modelmaker. He was, after all, a gifted flameworker. But this is only part of the explanation. Other factors were also at work. Leopold’s apprenticeship as a jeweler and his years in the family business had provided him with opportunities to work on a very small %%scale%%, and these experiences may also have given him the idea that complex models (such as bouquets and, later, invertebrate animals) could be assembled like jewelry.

Leopold used several design sources. The first of these was the printed page. He made his earliest models of invertebrates by copying the illustrations in the most up-to-date textbooks of zoology. One was Actinologia Britannica: A History of the British Sea-Anemones and Corals, published between 1858 and 1860 by the self-taught British naturalist Philip Henry Gosse (1810–1888). Gosse’s illustrations provided Leopold with images of sea anemones, but they also suggested that the models could be displayed on rocklike bases, which Leopold copied immediately (Figs. 2–5).

Figure 2. Sea anemones, including Actinoloba dianthus, copied by Leopold Blaschka from Gosse’s Actinologia Britannica. Pencil, ink, and watercolor on paper, 39 cm x 33 cm. Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass.

Figures 3 and 4. Sea anemones, including Zoanthus sulcatus, copied by Leopold Blaschka from Gosse’s Actinologia Britannica. Pencil, ink, and watercolor on paper, 23 cm x 29 cm. Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass.

Figure 5. Loligopsis varanii Férussac (squid). %%Drawing%% by Leopold Blaschka. Pencil, ink, and watercolor on paper, 29 cm x 24 cm. Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass.

Gosse’s plates proved to be a mixed blessing, however. The anemones were not shown at a uniform %%scale%%; indeed, the plates themselves gave no indication of %%scale%%. Moreover, the plates were open to misinterpretation, and if Gosse illustrated a specimen as seen from above, Leopold produced a flat, disklike model.

In an earlier book, The Aquarium (1854), Gosse had popularized the notion of keeping sea creatures in oxygenated saltwater aquariums (then a novelty), and this soon allowed Leopold to nurture and copy living specimens as well as illustrations in books.

Gosse had a powerful voice, and not only as a naturalist. In 1857, he published the strangely titled Omphalos/Creation, in which he expounded the view that, at the Creation, God had created all things for all time. Gosse was thus at odds with Charles Darwin (1809–1882), whose theory of evolution would be published two years later in On the Origin of Species.

A more distinguished naturalist who inspired Leopold was Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919), an eminent but controversial zoologist (and champion of Darwinism) at the University of Jena. Haeckel was a prodigious researcher who made major advances in our understanding of marine biology. He studied and published specimens collected by the Challenger Expedition, an important feat of oceanographic exploration carried out by the British Admiralty and the Royal Society between 1872 and 1876. During this period, H.M.S. Challenger, a 2,300-ton corvette, crisscrossed the world’s oceans, covering nearly 69,000 nautical miles. While the expedition’s oceanographers mapped the seabed and documented currents and temperatures, biologists collected thousands of species of marine life. The findings of the expedition were published in 50 volumes.

In 1877, Leopold contacted Haeckel, who lent the Blaschkas books so that they could copy the illustrations. They also purchased a copy of the first volume of Haeckel’s monograph on jellyfish.

centerpiece designed by Harry Powell for Count Minerbi

Haeckel was deeply interested in the decorative arts, and between 1899 and 1904 he published Kunstformender Natur (Art forms of nature), which had a profound influence on the development of the Art Nouveau style. The inspiration of this style in natural forms is illustrated (fortuitously, since there is no direct connection) by the Blaschkas’ working drawing of a squid (Fig. 5), their glass model of the same animal, and such creations as the centerpiece designed by Harry Powell for Count Minerbi and made at the Whitefriars Glass Works in London in 1906 (Fig. 6 ^^90.2.3^^).

Over the years, the Blaschkas worked from books and other publications from all over Europe.

Leopold’s second design source consisted of animals preserved in glass jars of alcohol. These, too, were a mixed blessing. In time, the specimens lost their natural coloring and, having no backbones to support them, their bodies gradually subsided into more or less shapeless masses in the bottom of the jars. Nevertheless, in 1877, Leopold ordered specimens preserved in alcohol from the zoological station in Naples to compare with illustrations in books. It may be no coincidence that this departure occurred just one year after Rudolf joined his father. Rudolf was an enthusiastic assistant, and he may have injected new ideas into the business.

In any case, it was at about the same time or not long afterward that the Blaschkas began to maintain living specimens in seawater aquariums of the kind promoted by Gosse. Presumably they did not have an aquarium when they ordered preserved specimens from Naples in 1877, although letters written in 1880 note that they had had aquariums for “several” years, and that they had kept anemones alive for “one and a half” and “several” years. The Blaschkas acquired live specimens from Naples, from Chioggia and Trieste in the upper Adriatic, from Weymouth on the English Channel, and from suppliers on the coasts of the North and Baltic Seas. Their generally successful method of transporting live specimens of sea anemones and mollusks over long distances consisted of wrapping them in wet seaweed, placing them in glass jars, and packing the jars in baskets.

The Blaschkas’ models of invertebrates were well timed, coinciding with the aquarium craze that had begun in England in the mid-19th century. This craze was fueled by the availability of inexpensive plate glass and the discovery that seaweed could be used to oxygenate the water in aquariums. The first large public aquarium was established by the Zoological Society of London in 1853. The largest aquarium was probably the zoological garden in Paris, which opened eight years later.

With the Blaschkas’ models, it was possible to stock waterless aquariums with sea anemones and other invertebrates. These required little or no maintenance and, unlike true aquariums, no restocking after the living specimens had died. In the preface to the earliest known sales catalog of Blaschka models (about 1871, in German), Ludwig Reichenbach drew attention to the advantage of glass models over specimens preserved in alcohol: they retained both their shape and their color. The first models of anemones had soon been joined by corals, jellyfish, mollusks, and other species. As the business prospered, additional German-language catalogs were issued in 1874 and 1875 (no copy bearing the latter date is known to have survived).

The Blaschkas had one other source of information to help them make accurate models: their archive of drawings, some of which, as noted above, were copied from textbooks. Other drawings, however, were made from their own observations. In 1879, for example, Rudolf went on a field trip to the upper Adriatic, which afforded him an opportunity to observe a greater number and variety of invertebrates than he could have hoped to see in his father’s aquariums. This modest expedition to Italy foreshadowed his far more ambitious field trips to the United States and the Caribbean in 1892 and 1895. Each of the drawings is numbered, and the same numbers were used to identify the models that Leopold offered for sale in his catalogs.

The models of sea anemones and other invertebrate animals proved to be a profitable business, in part because of the Blaschkas’ skill in producing minutely detailed replicas, but also because they were working during a period of momentous cultural change. That period had commenced in 1789, when the French Revolution caused the demise of one of the foremost states in Europe and the collapse of its social and religious institutions. The aftershocks of the Revolution were felt all over Europe. Traditional values were challenged and, in many cases, transformed. At least two of these transformations affected the Blaschkas directly: the development of science and the expansion of public education.

In science, the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778) had put the classification of animals and plants on a systematic basis during the second and third quarters of the 18th century, and his work was carried forward in the late 18th and early 19th centuries by biologists such as Georges Cuvier (1769–1832) and Jean-Baptiste-Pierre-Antoine de Monet de Lamarck (1744–1829). Their research led to a flood of publications. Some of them, such as Pierre Joseph Redouté’s Les Liliacées (published between 1802 and 1816) and Les Roses (1817–1824) and John James Audubon’s Birds of America (1827–1838), were not only scientific treatises but also masterpieces of draftsmanship and printing.

In public education, museums were springing up like mushrooms in the mid-19th century. Before 1800, almost all European and American museums were private. The Louvre in Paris did not open its doors to the public until 1793, and the Prado in Madrid followed suit in 1809. Subsequently, public museums were established all over Europe, as well as in the United States and other countries colonized by European powers. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., founded in 1846, is a prime example. Unlike most of the earlier museums, which focused on “curiosities” or the fine and decorative arts, the Smithsonian and other 19th-century foundations included collections that illustrated the natural sciences, and many of them displayed biological specimens arranged according to the classifications of Linnaeus and his successors.

The Blaschkas succeeded because their models solved a problem that confronted all directors of natural history museums. While the vertebrates (that is, animals, birds, and fish with backbones) were relatively easy to display—live specimens were killed, and their skins were stuffed and mounted in more or less lifelike poses—few of the invertebrates (jellyfish, squids, and so forth) could be exhibited in this manner. Indeed, the only method of displaying invertebrates was in bottles of alcohol. This limited the scope of what could be exhibited, and, in any case, the animals eventually collapsed and their colors faded. The Blaschkas’ models provided curators with displays featuring forms and colors that were permanent.

The proliferation of museums and the desire to display comprehensive natural history collections led to the emergence of a new profession: the supplier of fossils and zoological specimens. One such supplier was Robert Damon of Weymouth, England. He was typical of the new natural history dealers: adventurous, well informed, and served by a global network of agents. His obituary in the London Times of May 7, 1889, records that he “traveled all through Europe and penetrated into Asia and Africa... When in Russia, he traveled... down the Volga... for the purpose of collecting the fishes of the Caspian Sea.” Damon was also a serious scholar. He wrote a handbook of the geology of the Weymouth region, and his collection of fossils is now in the Natural History Museum in London.

In the early years of his business, Leopold had realized that dealers such as Damon provided excellent outlets for his models. They were in touch with the curators Leopold was trying to reach, and their networks offered him the possibility of selling his models all over Europe and beyond. The first dealer who is known to have handled Leopold’s models was Václav Fricˇ of Prague, now the capital of the Czech Republic. Fricˇ went into business in 1862, and he supplied natural history specimens to an international clientele. In 1866, for example, he sold models to the museum in Leeds, England. Not long afterward, Leopold appointed Damon to be his agent in the United Kingdom. In a letter to a British customer, Leopold explained that it was more efficient for a local agent to collect orders and payments, and to send these to Dresden in batches, than for him to process them individually.

Leopold’s strategy succeeded, and the extent of his business abroad is revealed by an English-language trade catalog, the manuscript of which survives in the Rakow Research Library at The Corning Museum of Glass. In the preface, Leopold wrote:

[Models of invertebrate animals] have been purchased by... museums and scholastic establishments in all the quarters of the globe... in New Zealand... in Tokio [sic], Japan... for the Indian Museum in Calcutta... in the United States of America by Professor Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York; for the Museum of Comparative Zoology in Cambridge, Massachusetts; for the Boston Society of Natural History; the University of Cornell; the Wellesley Female College... In Great Britain, Scotland and Ireland, copies have been conveyed to London, Edinburgh and Dublin... In Austria, orders have not only been made for the Imperial Royal Court collection, but also for the universities in Innsbruck, Graz, Czernovitz, and so forth. In Germany, purchases have been made for the universities of Berlin, Bonn, Koenigsberg, Jena, Leipzig, Rostock and many other museums.

Leopold’s claim to supply “all the quarters of the globe” was no exaggeration. In addition to the places just mentioned, his order book for the years between 1883 and 1890, preserved in the Rakow Library, records sales to agents and individual customers in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, and Australia.

The Blaschkas’ output was prodigious. The South Kensington Museum in London (now the Natural History Museum), for example, acquired 784 models in 1876; Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, purchased some 600 models; the Museum of Natural History in Dublin acquired 530 models between 1878 and 1886; the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University bought about 350 models; and the Boston Museum of Science has 311 models.

As the buyers’ names suggest, colleges in which natural history was taught were proliferating almost as quickly as public museums of natural history, and the acquisition of teaching collections became an urgent necessity. Under the charismatic leadership of the zoologist Louis Agassiz (1807–1873), Harvard University began to form teaching collections in the 1850s. Agassiz founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology in 1858, and, at its opening, he made an impassioned speech in which he complained that American students who wished to study the natural sciences in depth were compelled to visit Europe because of the lack of teaching collections in the United States. He vowed to remedy the situation by bringing to America comprehensive collections of zoological and geological specimens. Indeed, it was Agassiz who acquired the zoological museum’s 350 Blaschka models.

One of Agassiz’s assistants at Harvard was Henry Augustus Ward, a young American with a passion for geology. Like Damon, Ward was an adventurer. He left Harvard to take advantage of an expense-paid visit to France. This was the first of many trips abroad during which he collected fossils and other natural history specimens. In France, he was befriended by Madame Clicquot (wine lovers remember her as Veuve Clicquot), who allowed him to collect fossils in her vineyards in Champagne. In England, he sold his French fossils to the Natural History Museum in London. He then collected English fossils and sold them in France.

Once, when returning from Africa, Ward stopped in London, where he was invited to a reception in honor of David Livingstone. Unfortunately, Ward did not have a tuxedo, and the butler refused to admit him. According to a 1922 memoir:

The story goes that Ward went out of sight, [and] pinned the skirts of his coat and the flaps of his waistcoat back far enough to imitate a dress suit... Once admitted, he pressed into the circle of which... Livingstone was the center of attraction, and heard the great missionary lament that there was no-one alive who could give him information about the Niger [River] and the region [of Africa] which he intended to penetrate. To the surprise of the whole company, this roughly attired stranger... [replied]: “I think I can tell you, Sir, for I have just come from there.”2

In 1860, Ward was appointed professor of natural sciences at the University of Rochester in upstate New York. Inspired by his mentor Agassiz, Ward created a superb teaching collection, and he went into business for himself. In 1873, Ward’s Natural Science Establishment opened its doors in Rochester in order to provide schools and universities with specimens for the teaching of science. Like Robert Damon, Henry Ward personally collected many of the specimens he sold, he had agents all over the world, and he became an agent for Leopold Blaschka.

In 1878, Ward issued a 22-page catalog containing the Blaschkas’ models of 630 different specimens. This does not mean that the Blaschkas stocked examples of every model they made. That would have been impractical. Instead, they required customers to order from their catalogs, paying in advance. Ward sent the orders to Dresden, and Leopold and Rudolf made the models. In 1888, when Ward published a new edition of his catalog, the number of models had increased to700. The Blaschkas’ ingenuity in devising new models,as well as the sheer quantity of models they made and sold to an astonished public, is staggering.

In 1886, George Lincoln Goodale, professor of botany at Harvard University, traveled to Germany to persuade Leopold to abandon his successful career of making models of marine invertebrates and to concentrate instead on producing models of plants. The result was the unique collection of botanical models, known collectively as the Glass Flowers of Harvard. Many of the invertebrate models are spectacular, but the best of the botanical models are breathtaking.

1Great Exhibition (1851: London, England), Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue, London: Spicer Brothers, 1851, v. 3, p. 1,037.

2Augustus Hopkins Strong, Henry A. Ward: Reminiscence and Appreciation, Rochester, New York: Rochester Historical Society, 1922, p. 28.

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 November 3, 2011

David Whitehouse, Senior Scholar
David Whitehouse (1941-2013) joined The Corning Museum of Glass in 1984 as chief curator. He was named deputy director of collections in 1987, was promoted to deputy director of the Museum in 1988, and became director in 1992. He was appointed to...