All About Glass

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Fragile Legacy

All About Glass

From their first commission for glass marine invertebrate models in 1863, to their later production of glass flowers for Harvard University’s well-known Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants, Leopold Blaschka (1822 – 1895) and his son Rudolf (1857 – 1939) masterfully captured in glass the brilliance and beauty of living specimens.

Specimen of Blaschka Marine Life: Ulactis muscosa (Nr. 116), Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, Dresden, Germany, 1885. Lent by Cornell University, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. L.17.3.63-54.Fragile Legacy: The Marine Invertebrate Glass Models of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, on view May 14, 2016 through January 8, 2017, will present a selection of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschkas’ glass invertebrate models within the frameworks of marine life and glass conservation. Carefully crafted in their studio in Dresden, Germany, the Blaschkas’ models were shipped to universities and museums worldwide as study models. Paired alongside the father and son’s drawings, archival material directly from the Blaschka studio, and videos of living invertebrates, these delicate models inspire us today as we continue to explore the intersections of art and science. The nearly 140 objects displayed in the exhibition are drawn primarily from the collection of The Corning Museum of Glass and Cornell University’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, with loans from a contemporary artist and select national and international museums.

A Need for Models

Leopold and Rudolf worked during a period of momentous cultural and scientific changes. The success of their model business drew upon developments in biology and the expansion of public education in the 1700 and 1800s. A systematic classification of animals and plants in the latter part of the 1700s, begun by Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus (1707 – 1778), led to numerous publications devoted to the natural sciences.1 Oceans were a new scientific frontier in the mid-1800s; volumes filled with illustrations of recently-discovered marine species were printed and circulated extensively.

Marine Invertebrates in Jar of Formaldehyde Possibly Naples, Italy, possibly 1877 CMG 93.7.11, 93.7.10Simultaneously, the number of public museums grew rapidly, with collections of natural science customary inclusions. Curators and educators amassed large collections, frequently displaying specimens according to their scientific classifications. Taxidermied animals, often pillaged from colonized lands, were frozen in time and displayed alongside mineral specimens, gems, and insects. The display of marine invertebrates, however, posed a problem. The shapes and colors of these soft-bodied creatures quickly lose definition and detail, even when stored in formaldehyde or alcohol. The Blaschkas’ models provided a semblance of permanence to these elusive life forms. In the skilled hands of Leopold and Rudolf, glass became an ideal material for the study and display of these underwater creatures, providing accuracy while simultaneously capturing the transparency, translucency, and vivid colors of marine invertebrates.

Emerging Expertise

Within the extensive holdings of our Rakow Research Library is the Leopold & Rudolf Blaschka Collection, jointly purchased from the Blaschka studios with Harvard University in the late 1990s. In addition to business records, correspondence, and studio material, this collection contains more than 400 Blaschka marine drawings that were, and still are, works of art in the service of science. Each drawing in the collection is a careful study of marine invertebrate form and color.

Left: Design Drawing of Halistemma rubrum (Nr. 208), Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, Dresden, Germany, 1863-1890. CMGL 122344. Center: Design Drawing of Octopus salutii (Nr. 573), Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, Dresden, Germany, 1863-1890. CMGL 94536. Right: Design Drawing of Holigocladodes lunulatus (Nr. 233), Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, Dresden, Germany, 1863-1890. CMGL 122349.

Leopold and Rudolf initially created these drawings after a close study of published illustrations. One monograph that provided the Blaschkas with direct source material was George Allman’s A monograph of the gymnoblastic or tubularian hydroids (1871-1892). Allman’s impact on the Blaschkas’ work is evident when comparing his illustration of Perigonimus vestitus with the Blaschkas’ drawing and glass model Nr. 172. The details from illustration to copied drawing transferred flawlessly from drawing to model. In their quest for accuracy, Leopold and Rudolf became masters at replicating intricacies in glass, even recreating the illustrated life-sized version of the invertebrate (the tiny object to the left of this enlarged model, pictured below right).

Left: Perigonimus vestitus from A Monograph of the Gymnoblastic or Tubularian Hydroids by George James Allman (1812–1898), London: published for the Ray Society by R. Hardwicke, 1871–1872. CMGL 149261. Center: Design Drawing of Perigonimus vestitus (Nr. 172) and Heterocordyle conybearei (Nr. 155), Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, Dresden, Germany, 1863–1890. CMGL 122337.CMGL 122337 Right: Specimen of Blaschka Marine Life: Perigonimus vestitus (Nr. 172), Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, Dresden Germany, 1885. Lent b

As the Blaschkas and their models became well-known in scientific communities, they gained access to marine research stations and contemporary publications. The father and son continued to study illustrations featured in zoology texts, but over time more often worked directly from nature. Rudolf traveled extensively to observe and study invertebrates in their natural environment. The pair also maintained living specimens in a seawater aquarium, acquiring invertebrates from the upper Adriatic, the English Channel, and from suppliers on the coasts of the North and Baltic Seas.2

Fabrication & Assembly

Match Box Containing Glass 197 Parts of Marine Animals, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, Dresden, Germany 1863-1890. 93.3.74-4Much of what we know about the Blaschkas’ production methods derives from close inspection of archival material in tandem with examination of the models themselves. To standardize their production process, Leopold and Rudolph prefabricated invertebrate body parts. Forty matchboxes that house these pre-made, uniform glass parts, to be used for making a variety of models, demonstrate the Blaschkas’ meticulous approach to crafting their work: matchbox cases often contain written text and illustrations disclosing their inner contents. Vibrant flames of colored glass attach to wire supports, wispy tendrils, groups of thin glass hairs, kleine augen (little eyes), and tubularia trauben (tubularia grapes) were all stored securely for later use by the father and son.

Specimen of Blaschka Marine Life: Bunodes crispa (Nr. 45), Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, Dresden, Germany, 1885. Lent by Cornell University, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. L.17.3.63-71.Only after receiving an order would they create finished models by assembling the prefabricated parts with metal wires and animal glue. Assembled invertebrates were then painted and embellished to appear as realistic as possible. Bunodes crispa (Blaschka Nr. 45) showcases the variety and sheer volume of individual parts often necessary to construct a model. Dozens of prefabricated central tentacles portraying movement and life rest atop the anemone’s hollow glass body. A cluster of tiny, thin tentacles surrounds the inner set while small glass pearls, each individually attached, peek out from below.

From Dresden to the World

The rise of natural history museums and teaching institutions initiated the emergence of a new profession: suppliers of fossils and zoological specimens.3 Leopold quickly realized that these dealers and their published catalogs provided excellent outlets for his models, and so the Blaschkas worked with agents to sell and distribute throughout Europe and around the world. In North America, their sole agent was Henry Ward, an adventurer and professor of natural science. Ward developed an extensive teaching collection before creating his own Rochester, NY, business supplying schools and universities with natural history specimens. In 1878, Ward’s Catalogue featured 630 Blaschka models. In its preface, Leopold writes:

The glass models, indicated in the following list and which I have now made for more than fifteen years, are suited for Museums, as well as for the completion of instruction in Natural History at Universities, High Schools and other Academies. They are universally acknowledged as being perfectly true to nature [.  .  .] All the animals mentioned in this catalogue, are represented exactly according to their natural form and color. They are made partly after my own observations and examinations, and partly by the help of the best modern Zoological Works.

[.  .  .] In the giving of orders I must beg for as lengthened a time of delivery as possible, as I make the models with the help of my son, Rudol[f] Blaschka, alone, it being impossible to employ any other assistant in the manufacturing of them.

The extensive list of purchasing institutions included in the preface, coupled with their methodically kept business records, reveal that the Blaschkas sold to over 100 institutions across more than 20 countries. Considering model production was accomplished solely by father and son, this output is truly staggering.

Left: Specimen of Blaschka Marine Life: Comatula Mediterranea (Nr. 250), Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, Dresden, Germany, 1885. Lent by Cornell University, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. L.17.3.63-10.  Center: Specimen of Blaschka Marine Life: Glaucus Iineatus (Nr. 449), Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, Dresden, Germany, 1885. Lent by Cornell University, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. L.17.3.63-374. Right: Porpita mediterranea (Nr. 216), Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, Dresden, Germ

Cornell University & The Corning Museum of Glass

In 1885, Cornell University purchased 570 Blaschka models from Ward’s. The models were utilized by the University’s Entomology and Invertebrate Zoology department until the advent of the aqualung and underwater filming, when dives and film became preferred methods of study. No longer needed as teaching tools, the collection fell into disuse and lay forgotten until 1957, when Professor Thomas Eisner, a young Cornell faculty member, discovered the 570 glass marine invertebrates locked in antique cabinets at Roberts Hall. In 1963, Cornell University contacted the Corning Museum of Glass and established a managed loan between the University and the Museum that continues to the present day.

Recently, the work of Dr. Drew Harvell and David Owen Brown, founders of the Fragile Legacy project, have developed a new audience for Cornell’s Blaschka collection. Dr. Harvell, a marine biologist and professor in Cornell’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, is now caretaker of Cornell’s Blaschka collection. A former member of the Jacques Cousteau documentary team, Brown is a producer and cameraman specializing in marine and aquatic issues. Together, Harvell and Brown have undertaken a quest to film living examples of models within Cornell’s collection. “If there ever was a time to compare the plentiful past with an ocean in jeopardy, that time would be now,” explains Harvell. The resulting footage provides a high-definition chronicle of marine invertebrate life and a perspective on which of these amazing animals remain in the sea.4

Marine Conservation

While the models themselves are brilliantly crafted, pairing models with footage captured by Harvell and Brown reveals just how talented the Blaschkas were at recreating these underwater creatures.

Left: Specimen of Blaschka Marine Life: Synapta glabra (Nr. 284), Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, Dresden, Germany, 1885. Lent by Cornell University, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. L.17.3.63-20. Right: A sea cucumber on the ocean floor. (Still from footage captured by Harvell and Brown.)

Blaschka Nr. 284 (Synapta glabra), for example, is a sinuous invertebrate commonly known as a sea cucumber. It acquired its nickname from the appearance of it leathery, warty skin, resembling a cucumber rind. The Blaschkas recreated this feature in glass by coloring the model with textured paint or enamel. The tentacles of the invertebrate help it feed on microorganisms and organic debris that deposit on the bottom of the sea. Captured footage shows that in its pursuit of food, the sea cucumber’s tentacles swirl sand from the ocean floor, re-oxygenating surrounding waters. Thus, sea cucumbers play a vital role in reducing harmful impacts of ocean acidification on coral reefs.

Glass Conservation

Each marine invertebrate model and the soft-bodied undersea creature it represents are fragile; both merit conservation efforts. While marine conservationists focus on safeguarding marine ecosystems and on limiting and preventing damage to them, our Museum’s conservators have worked to repair, protect, and stabilize the models so that they are preserved for years to come.

Dresden Germany, 1885. Lent by Cornell University, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. L.17.3.63-516.Throughout the course of treatments, our conservation staff found signs of glass deterioration in the form of white crystals and liquid droplets on many Blaschka models, including Blaschka Nr. 213, a sea jelly. Unstable glass compositions, along with moisture in the air, can cause glass to deteriorate and eventually lose its structural integrity, a process that can occur over centuries or in a matter of years. While there is no way to stop deterioration once it begins, conservators slow it down by controlling the environment and periodically cleaning the glass. Many of the Blaschka invertebrate models are constructed with hollow shapes, trapping in moisture and causing deterioration. In addition to delicate cleaning, many of this sea jelly’s tentacles were broken into pieces over time, with most of them entirely detached from the model prior to treatment. After careful reconstruction of each broken tentacle, they were reattached to the model by conservators.

A Contemporary Source of Inspiration

Aulosphaera elegantissimaI (Haeckel, 1862) Guido Mocafico (Italian, b. Switzerland 1962) Paris, France; with kind permission of the Natural History Museum, Dublin © 2013; printed 2016 Chromogenic print (framed) Overall H: 53.1 cm, W: 53.1 cm © Guido Mocafico courtesy Hamiltons Gallery, London WARD N.639

Although absent from Cornell’s 1885 purchase, some of the most spectacular Blaschka models reveal the surprising microscopic world of radiolarians. The slender glass spikes and intricate inner spheres of glass networks that make these models so stunning are incredibly fragile, limiting their ability to travel great distances and eliminating the possibility to acquire one on loan from outside institutions. The immense beauty of these specific models inspired contemporary Italian photographer Guido Mocafico, whose stunning photographs enable the Blaschkas’ models to be enjoyed around the world without potential for damage. While the models themselves remain safely on display at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, nine photographs of Dublin’s glass radiolarians provide a close look at impressive craftsmanship of the Blaschkas and a reminder that the Blaschkas continue to inspire today.

Although crafted over 130 years ago, these intricate models are a constant source of inspiration for contemporary artists, glassmakers, marine conservationists, and students. The Blaschkas’ exquisite work reminds us of marine life’s fragile beauty, remaining valuable teaching tools as our oceans are threatened, and enabling us to continue exploring intersections of art and science.

Published on April 20, 2016

Alexandra Ruggiero
Assistant Curator
Alexandra Ruggiero joined the Museum in 2012. She assists with acquisitions, exhibitions, cataloging and research of the Museum’s glass collections, with a focus on the American, modern, and contemporary collections. Ruggiero co-curated the 2016...
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