Photos of extraordinary 19th-century glass sea creatures

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Before underwater photography brought marine life to light, a father and son team made remarkable scientific models using glass techniques still not fully understood.

Although interest in the natural world had slowly been gaining steam over the centuries, it exploded in the 1800s – a time when natural specimens, taxidermy, illustrations and scientific models served to enlighten a culture hungry for a taste of nature. Now we have high-technology to provide glimpses of the natural world near and far, but in earlier times the public relied on artists and craftsmen to help them understand the living wonders of our planet.

Which brings us to the father and son team of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka.

You may have heard of the Blaschkas' work before; they are the creators of the well-known Ware Collection of glass flowers at Harvard University, a celebrated display of phenomenal jewel-like flora. The way in which they rendered sea life is no less exquisite; a feat of astonishing accuracy, using flameworking techniques that are still not fully understood, according to the Corning Museum of Glass (CMoG) which is presenting a large exhibit of the glass models.

“The fragile, intricately–detailed, and colorful sea creatures on view – including anemones, octopi, sea stars, and even sea slugs – will illustrate the Blaschkas’ still-unmatched expertise with glass as a medium, while also transporting audiences to a hidden world beneath the sea more than 100 years ago,” says Alexandra Ruggiero, the exhibition’s co-curator and CMoG curatorial assistant. “The fragility of both the sea creatures and the glass models motivated our efforts to highlight stories of marine and glass conservation within the exhibition.”

Coming from a long line of glassblowers and flameworkers, Leopold was traveling by ship when he was introduced to the magic of jellyfish and other aquatic life. Years later he drew on this experience to produce glass sea anemones for display at the Natural History Museum in Dresden, explains CMoG. Since underwater photography wasn’t exactly a thing at the time, Leopold’s detailed models became all the rage for universities and natural history museums, which wanted similar creations for study and display. A thriving business ensued, and in 1876 Rudolf joined his father in the work. They eventually had a catalog of 700 invertebrate models available upon request.

With 20th-century advances in underwater exploration and photography, interest in the models waned – but their value will never decline. What extraordinary creations they are, each an incredible work of art that show the height of craftsmanship as well as a natural sensitivity to the creatures of the deep.

“Their innovative work has impacted art and science for generations,” says Dr. Marvin Bolt, CMoG’s curator of science and technology, “and still inspires artists and scientists today.”

The exhibit, "Fragile Legacy: The Marine Invertebrate Glass Models of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka" – which along with nearly 70 glass models and an array of historical ephemera also explores issues of marine conservation – runs until January 8, 2017.

Click through to PAGE 2 to see an octopus, sea cucumber, feather star, squid, and other exquisite creatures.

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