Initially Leopold worked from illustrated books, fabricating colorful glass anemones and squid for exhibition in the Dresden Natural History Museum. When Rudolf entered the business in the 1870s, the Blaschkas expanded the collection to include the full gamut of spineless sea life — from brittle stars to sea cucumbers — which they sold to museums and universities worldwide. They also started ordering living specimens from marine laboratories throughout Europe.
“Their power of observation was very acute, and they were really well educated,” says Susan Rossi-Wilcox, former curator of Harvard University’s Blaschka glass flower collection (a later body of work for which the Blaschkas are now most renowned). “It’s very easy to think you’re copying something, but if you don’t have an understanding of the important aspects, the chances of getting it right are pretty low.” The Blaschkas got it right every time, and they did so with dexterity that confounds modern glassmakers.
“The technology they had to do this was a wooden bench with a bellows system,” explains Marvin Bolt, curator of science and technology at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York. From the delicacy of jellyfish bells to the fragility of their tentacles, the models depended on technical perfection for their educational value. “You get a real sense of the animals’ scale and ornamentation,” says Bolt. “Students could see similarities between species and therefore their evolutionary connections.”
However, the fine glass details were vulnerable to breakage, especially when handled by students. It wasn’t long before the fragile figures were lost to time, packed away in cardboard boxes. The Corning Museum of Glass has been instrumental in their restoration, working at Harvell’s behest, and a selection is currently on view in an exhibition that runs through the beginning of 2017. The museum is also screening a film by Harvell and underwater videographer David O. Brown, documenting her efforts to find living likenesses of the glass creatures anywhere from the North Atlantic to the Mediterranean to the coral reefs of Indonesia.
The search has been revealing, showing how dramatically biodiversity has diminished since the Blaschkas’ era. Their cephalopod collection — numerous octopus, squid and cuttlefish — is a good example: “Some of them turn up in the stomachs of whales and sharks, so we know they must be out there, but nobody has seen them for quite a while now,” Harvell says. “For the Blaschkas to have had access to them, they must have been much more common.”
Still, Harvell is frank about the challenges of drawing conclusions from the Blaschka collection. “The oceans are a very big place,” she observes, and truly comprehensive surveys require more resources. Harvell thinks the Blaschka models will help, and that their artistry can inspire greater interest in spineless saltwater species. “People are very vertebrate-centric,” she says.
The vitreous cuttlefish and sea slugs evoke an underwater world that few people encounter directly even today. Nearly a century and a half after their creation, these glass models are once again showing their educational worth.