Botanica Collected

Glass and the Garden 

By Diane Dolbashian

Originally appeared  in The Botanical Artist – Volume 18, Issue 1

 

The Rakow Library is the research arm of The Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York. Like its parent organization, it was established in 1951 for the purpose of advancing and disseminating knowledge in the art and history of glass. Among the Library’s resources relating to the art of glass are thousands of original design, presentation, and production drawings for objects made by American and European glass studios and manufacturers. The majority of these holdings date from the late 19th and first quarter of the 20th centuries, coinciding with the Art Nouveau period of the decorative arts. 

By this time, industrialization had altered just about every sector of manufacturing activity, and glassmaking was no exception. And although many of the glassmakers adopted mechanized production processes, they held fast to a unifying artistic vision steeped in the natural world. Nature was always the aesthetic touchstone of Art Nouveau and, in particular, plant forms modeled an ideal of beauty which artists applied to their design concepts. 

In America, Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) exemplified the artist-industrialist who loved and looked to nature for his vision. Aside from windows, the Tiffany Studios crafted beautiful everyday objects to embellish the homes of an emergent consumer class. In 1956, the Rakow acquired eight plant studies executed by Alice Gouvy and Lillian Palmié, used in designing such items. Gouvy and Palmié were two of many women workers at the Tiffany Studios who were supervised by Clara Driscoll. Their identities and their talent long obscured by Tiffany’s celebrity, their role in the success of his enterprise has come to the fore in the New York Historical Society’s book, A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls (2007). 

Although the Gouvy and Palmié drawings are meant to provide an accurate record of the species, they have no pretense of science. Their titles are simple vernacular plant names: Violets, Peonies, Dandelion Plant, Berries, Marsh Marigold, Chestnut Leaves, Thistle, and one untitled sketch of a branch with yellow berries. Still, Gouvy and Palmié took care to capture the distinguishing features of each specimen, creating lively plant portraits that could be translated to a threedimensional medium. 

An iconic figure in French decorative arts, Émile Gallé (1846- 1904) owned glass and furniture studios in the northeastern French city of Nancy, a hub of Art Nouveau creativity. Gallé studied nature his entire life and had a profound knowledge of botany. In 1983 and again in 1993, the Rakow received donations totaling about 150 ink drawings of Gallé’s botanical design motifs. 

Although the species are not labeled, many are recognizable as woodland flowers. In addition, the months of Avril and Mai noted on the verso of several drawings support the notion that the plants were sketched from live, blooming specimens in the nearby countryside or in a botanic garden which Gallé cultivated on his property. The Belgian glass company Cristalleries du Val St. Lambert (VSL), established in 1826, entered the Art Nouveau era with the help of Léon Ledru (1855- 1926), its forward-thinking chief of design services. Much like Gallé, Ledru had a scientific and aesthetic interest in botany, and he executed many studies for regional and exotic plants in a variety of media. The Rakow’s collection contains Ledru’s most luminous, Asian-inspired design  titled Vase Bossuet. Reflecting his personal interest and experience in landscape painting, it belongs to a catalog of 79 original drawings by various noted artists designing glass for Val St. Lambert in the Art Nouveau era. 

The Library’s collection of Blaschka drawings falls into an entirely different category of art. In 2007, our Museum exhibited glass models of plants and invertebrate marine animals made by Leopold Blaschka (1822- 1895) and his son Rudolf Blaschka (1857-1939) at their lampworking studio in Dresden, Germany. The models were a direct response to the 19th century explosion of interest in natural history as intercontinental exploration brought to light an ever-growing inventory of flora and fauna. Universities purchased models for study and teaching, while museums did the same for displays. 

The Blaschka exhibit curators, Susan Rossi-Wilcox and David Whitehouse, produced an accompanying book, Drawing Upon Nature: Studies for the Blaschkas’ Glass Models, which featureda selection of both the marine and botanical drawings created by the Blaschkas to reference in constructing the models. The Rakow has more than 900 original drawings, split about evenly between the marine and botanical subjects. 

The Blaschkas drew from living specimens in their own gardens but also in other regional botanical gardens. Rudolf also wanted to create studies from specimens in the Americas and sailed there twice for that purpose. The 1892 field season brought him first to New England, then Jamaica, the American Southwest, and California. He stayed a month on Jamaica and at the production pace of about five drawings a day, documented 106 tropical plants. His travels through the Southwest and California represent about two months of fieldwork. The 1895 field season took him back to New England and then the American Southeast. 

The Rakow has a list of the drawings with the collecting locality for almost each plant. The drawings are executed in pencil with occasional reds, pinks, and striking corals punctuating the mostly yellow, green, and brown tones. Many are heavily annotated. The focus of the first series was plant life having importance for food and medicine. Three additional series concentrated on nonflowering plants, insects and pollination, and blighted fruits. Of these, the insect drawings are especially alluring. And finally, the Blaschka archive also contains a traditional “hortus siccus” – a book of pressed and dried plants and grasses – which Leopold and Rudolf assembled from 1883 to 1889. The specimens are amazingly intact, and it would be a labor of love to find their corollaries among the drawings and the models. 

To learn more about the collections of The Corning Museum of Glass and the Rakow Library, visit the Museum’s website at www.cmog.org

Diane Dolbashian has been Head Librarian at the Rakow Library since 2005. All images are courtesy the Collection of Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass.

  • Window design using botanicals, designed by Booth Glass
  • Jambosa vulgaris by Rudolf Blaschka, preparatory illustration for glass botanical model
  • Castilleja integra by Rudolf Blaschka, preparatory drawings for glass botanical models.
  • Violets by Tiffany artist Alice Gouvy
  • Design for vase with Tiger Lily by Émile Gallé