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Leopold Blaschka and Rudolf Blaschka: Drawings for Glass Models of Marine Invertebrates

All About Glass

Although many people have either heard about or visited the Harvard collection of glass flowers, few are familiar with their creators, the father and son model makers, Leopold (1822-1895) and Rudolf (1857-1939) Blaschka. Fewer still know about the Blaschkas’ models of soft-bodied undersea creatures - marine invertebrates - which they made in their lampworking studio in Dresden, Germany and shipped to universities and museums worldwide.

Sea anemones, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. 1 art original: ink, watercolor on paper ; 23 x 57 cm folded to 23 x 29 cm. CMGL 96207.But why marine invertebrates? And why glass models? In the second half of the 19th century, the oceans represented a new scientific frontier. Oceanographic expeditions fueled an explosion of knowledge through voyages to exotic places and discoveries of new species. However, despite published descriptions and illustrations, marine life forms did not lend themselves to easy study. They could not be preserved and displayed in the same manner as plants, birds, mammals, reptiles, or even insects; they could not be dried or cured in alcohol without losing their color or shape. Glass gave a semblance of permanence to these elusive life forms. It was an ideal material for modeling marine invertebrates for both study and display. Glass could capture the transparency and translucence of jellyfish and the vivid colors of other creatures one could only imagine until then.

Anatomie von Sepia officinalis, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, n.d., 1 art original: pencil, ink, watercolor on paper ; 41 x 33 cm. CMGL 95750.With brilliant technique, the Blaschkas fashioned the most delicate of sea animals in glass. Typically, they made their models from preliminary drawings, but these were in no way rough sketches. Aspiring to an ideal of scientific accuracy, they were meticulously detailed. Taken altogether, they portray an eerie realm of the deep. And while many seem quite similar, no two drawings are the same. Placing them side by side, we see how the detail is rendered – in the almost imperceptible shadings of a color or the precise length and curve of a tentacle. The differences that emerge teach us how to detect and to see carefully the subtle variations in these life forms as they might actually exist in their dark, watery home.

Looking at the Rakow’s collection of more than 400 marine drawings, we cannot escape the impression of their inherent artistic beauty. While the Blaschkas’ drawings were meant to be a tool of science, they have become art. Together with the models, they constitute a magnificent body of work, executed in two and three dimensions, where science and art have intersected in service to the study of nature in an age of exploration.

Diane Dolbashian

This essay is part of a series on Treasures in the Rakow Research Library.

Design Museum , TwoTen Gallery, and National Glass Centre. Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. London: Design Museum, TwoTen Gallery; Sunderland: National Glass Centre, 2002.

Reiling, Henri. Die unvollendete: analysis of a selection of Blaschka drawings. [Utrecht: the author], 1998.

______. Images of invertebrates: entries according to taxonomy or Blaschkas’ numbers. [Utrecht: the author], 1998.

Published on January 6, 2014