This common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) is from Cornell’s extensive collection of glass marine models fashioned by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. Photo by Gary Hodges
According to Science Friday, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka are perhaps best known for crafting a collection of glass flowers for Harvard. But together they made their mark fashioning thousands of marine invertebrate models.
The specimen is one of thousands of meticulously detailed marine invertebrate models fashioned between 1863 and 1890 by a father-son glassworking duo, for the primary purpose of research and education. Collectively, their work depicts more than 700 different species—including various anemones, squids, and sea stars—found in waters around the globe.
The models’ destinations were also far-flung. From their glassworking studio in Dresden, Germany, Leopold Blaschka and his son, Rudolf, shipped their fragile pieces to museums and academic institutions in locales as diverse as Australia, India, Japan, and the United States (where Cornell University now holds what’s likely the world’s largest collection, at more than 570 pieces).
“They’re extraordinary works of art, but the precision with which they’re made and their representational accuracy was there initially to convey scientific knowledge,” says Marvin Bolt, curator of science and technology at The Corning Museum of Glass, where a Blaschka exhibit called Fragile Legacy: The Marine Invertebrate Glass Models of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka opens on May 14. It features not only a medley of the Blaschkas’ models, but artifacts from their studio, too. (For more than 40 years, conservators at the museum have been steadily working to stabilize Cornell’s Blaschka collection so it endures for years to come.)
The Blasckhas deliberately focused on crafting models of soft-bodied organisms, because real-life specimens were prone to losing their shape and color when preserved in alcohol and were hard to study in detail. Their diaphanous medium was particularly fitting for their subject matter. “No other material [besides glass] can convey the translucency of soft-bodied animals equally well,” says Bolt.
Leopold and Rudolf descended from a long line of glassworkers and demonstrated the kind of skill that springs from inherent ability honed over time. “As a child, Rudolf would have seen his father, and Leopold would have seen his father, and so on and so forth,” says Bolt. “So they grew up with this—it was part of not just their DNA, but part of their experience.”