A Winter Garden in Cambridge,
Harvard’s Famous Glass Flowers
By Barbara Rizza Mellin
Bring me a rose in the winter time
When it’s hard to find
Bring me a rose in the winter time
I’ve got roses on my mind.
These words from an old Ernie Sheldon folk song capture the sentiment of the season. If only we could have flowers all year ‘round. Well, if you are in Cambridge, Massachusetts, you can!
You can see a cluster of orange, bell-shaped petals with bright yellow stamens protruding like fireworks from a West Indian Mountain Rose (Brownea rosa-de-monte). Or you view purplish splotches striping long, yellow petals of a delicate orchid, which seems to have attracted the attention of a green-bodied insect. No, I’m not describing an impossible winter garden as I write this, but a unique collection in Harvard University’s Museum of Natural History, which has reopened this year after being closed for renovations and upgrades. The best part of this flower show is that its profusion of color perpetually blooms. If you visit, you’ll see blossoms and buds so real-looking, you won’t believe the signs telling you they are glass!
Lately, you’ve probably noticed that glass has become the darling of the art world, with museums and galleries highlighting the popularity of this relatively new art medium. However, Harvard’s celebrated Glass Flowers, (officially the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants) have been on display since 1887. Each petal, pistil, stamen and leaf has been superbly handcrafted by a pair of exceptionally skilled artisans.
Its chemical and physical properties are so unique that, paradoxically, glass is simultaneously fragile and enduring. The malleability of molten glass combined with the tensile strength of cooled glass make it perfect for both science and art.
The father-and-son team of Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka from Dresden, Germany, created more than 4,000 scientific replicas (847 plant species) between 1886 and 1936. Models were crafted to provide scientifically accurate reproductions for research and teaching purposes and also to supply the period’s intellectually curious with samples for collecting. In the process, exquisitely beautiful and intricate art forms were produced that articulated the contours of the botanical world and captured the luminosity of nature. The Glass Flowers are one of Harvard’s greatest treasures, observed Harvard’s Herbaria Director, Charles Davis. They are a combination of unparalleled artistic beauty and scientific rigor.
Since the 15th century, the Blaschka family had been glassmakers in Bohemia, where they experimented to create just the right, desired effects, staining the glass to vary translucency, working different melting temperatures to intensify colors, and ultimately manufacturing their own glass.
“Many people think that we have some secret apparatus by which we can squeeze glass suddenly into these forms, but it is not so,” explained Leopold Blaschka to 19th century observers. Actually, the Blaschkas worked for several months producing like-patterned petals and leaves of related species, and carefully storing them in drawers according to genus. For the next three months, they assembled the pieces. Incredibly, at
the height of their activity in the late 1890s, often working 14 hours a day, they sent as many as 100 sets of models per year to Harvard, each set comprising five to ten pieces.
Without doubt, they observed nature meticulously. However, that authenticity is not only adroitly achieved but also gracefully presented and inherently artistic. Every one of the individual specimens with its elegant composition and aesthetic appeal can stand alone as a superb glass sculpture.
You really must see these near-magical masterpieces. Approximately 200,000 visitors annually view the famous Glass Flowers that have been on display for more than 100 years. I’m sure, like me, you’ll love viewing them in any season, but I suggest you visit during the winter, for as the song says,
“A rose is sweet most anytime, and yet
Bring me a rose in the wintertime
How quickly we forget.”
Barbara Mellin is an award-winning artist and writer. As an art historian and world traveler, she finds inspiration in the “diverse cultures, natural beauty, and amazing people” that she has encountered in her visits to five continents, 24 countries and 45 states. Her articles on art and travel have been published around the world. Originally from the Boston area, she now lives in Winston-Salem, where she is a member of several professional art organizations and serves on the board of the Winston Salem Writers. For more information, visit www.BarbaraRizzaMellin.com.