In 1901, just three years after the Worcester Art Museum opened, it received an unprecedented bequest: 3,700 Japanese woodblock prints from John Chandler Bancroft (1835-1901). This collection, amassed by the Boston businessman over several decades, was the earliest of its kind in the United States and is still considered one of the finest in the nation. With his keen eye and pioneering collecting practices, Bancroft not only elevated the Museum’s art holdings substantially, but also laid a significant foundation for expanding early scholarship in Japanese art history regionally.
Most of the Japanese prints in the John Chandler Bancroft Collection at WAM are ukiyo-e, which translates literally to “pictures of the floating world.” Prints from this diverse artistic genre often capture dream-like scenes of life enjoyed in Japan’s urban centers during the Edo-period (1603–1868), a time characterized by political peace, rapid economic growth, and an unprecedented flowering of the arts. Drawing upon classical art and literature, as well as evolving trends in popular design at the time, the subjects of ukiyo-e ranged from traditional lush, picturesque landscapes and Buddhist iconography to the modern and cosmopolitan, including elegantly attired courtesans or kabuki actors and scenes of daily life.
View the Collection Online
The entire John Chandler Bancroft Collection can be accessed through WAM’s online collection search.
About John Chandler Bancroft
Born in 1835 to acclaimed Worcester-based historian George Bancroft (1800-1891), John Chandler Bancroft spent his early years travelling between Europe and the United States. His passion for art as both a practicing artist and collector began after he withdrew from Harvard Law School and subsequently moved to Europe in the 1850’s. He spent six years in Dresden, Dusseldorf, and Paris, studying drawing and landscape painting. He eventually returned to the United States with the outbreak of the Civil War and settled near Newport, Rhode Island. There Bancroft frequented the studio of painter William Morris Hunt (1824-1879) and became acquainted with young artist John La Farge (1835-1910).
Bancroft and La Farge quickly forged a friendship that would last a lifetime, fueled by their shared interest in art criticism and appreciation, as well as their fascination with what was at the time modern color theory (based on new discoveries in the fields of optics and optometry). They also developed their respective art practices together, often spending time painting landscapes in plein air and discussing the contemporary art movements, such as modernism and impressionism. Both began to purchase and collect Japanese ukiyo-e prints beginning in the early 1860s through the dealer A. A. Low, several decades before imported Japanese art became a highly sought-after commodity in Europe and the Americas (a trend later called “Japanomania”). This was also over twenty years before most other eminent American collectors, such as William Sturgis Bigelow (who donated his collection to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), began assembling Japanese print collections of comparable size and scope.
Although there was very little English scholarship on Japanese art during his time, Bancroft was still able to assemble a collection that impressively reflected the diversity of ukiyo-e prints, which vary in size, date, material, function, content, and style. His collection is also notable for the quality and well-preserved condition of the prints, possibly because he acquired them directly from Japan or a dealer not long after they entered the market.
Even while Bancroft was alive, his contributions to American arts, collecting, and Japanese print scholarship did not receive the recognition they deserved. John La Farge referenced this when writing the obituary for his dear friend, “Of him I have seen no sufficient notice taken … Mr. Bancroft's career… is a type of the many intellectual efforts which influence and help and determine the general movement, while the individuals whose minds have acted in this way are little known by name to the general public which still feels their intentions and their studies.”
In recent years, the Worcester Art museum has been making efforts to shed light on the offerings of his wonderfully prolific collection, most notably the Fall 2022 exhibition The Floating World: Japanese Prints from the Bancroft Collection. Nearly 125 years after John Chandler Bancroft’s landmark bequest to the Worcester Art Museum, has come to be considered a Worcester treasure and an international resource for research, education, and inspiration.
The following exhibitions have included prints from the John Chandler Bancroft Collection.
- The Floating World: Japanese Prints from the John Chandler Bancroft Collection, November 26, 2022 – February 26, 2023 An exhibition of nearly 50 woodblock prints—among the most prized that Bancroft purchased and most of which have never before been on display.
- The Kimono in Print: 300 Years of Japanese Design, February 6 – May 2, 2021
- Travels with Hiroshige, February 23 – May 26, 2019
- Uncanny Japan: The Art of Yoshitoshi, February 28 – May 24, 2015
- Pilgrimage to Hokusai's Waterfalls, May 17, 2012 – November 2012
- Pillar-Print Masterpieces: Narrow Glimpses into Japanese Life, Legends, and Literature, August 27, 2005 – January 21, 2006
- Paragons of Fashion: Early Nineteenth Century Japanese Woodblock Prints of Beauties, September 15, 2007 - March 2, 2008
- Birds in Japanese Art and Poetry, February 21 – July 16, 2004
- Terrific Tokyo: A Panorama of Prints, April 17 - July 4, 1999
Do some international travel without leaving New England
By Jared Bowen and Molly McCaul, January 26, 2023
The Japan Society UK
Exhibition - The Kimono in Print: 300 Years of Japanese Design
by Fiona Collins, April, 2021
WGBH/Open Studio with Jared Bowen
The Kimono in Print at WAM
March 19, 2021
The National Review
Kinky Kimonos Galore
By Brian T. Allen, March 6, 2021
The Bay State Banner
‘The Kimono in Print: 300 Years of Japanese Design’ at Worcester Art Museum
By Susan Saccoccia, March 4, 2021
The Wall Street Journal
‘The Kimono in Print: 300 Years of Japanese Design’ Review: Clothes as Canvas
By Lee Lawrence, February 27, 2021
The art of the kimono is explored in two new exhibitions at Worcester Art Museum
The following resources provide additional information and perspectives about works in the John Chandler Bancroft collection and about the Japanese art form, ukiyo-e prints.
- The Kimono in Print: 300 Years of Japanese Design, access Magazine, Fall 2020, pages 6-7
- Exquisite Kimono prints are more than meets the eye, access Magazine, Spring 2020, pages 10-11
- Travels with Hiroshige, access Magazine, Winter/Spring 2019, pages 8-9
- Sainsbury/WAM Fashioning Colors Symposium, Vivian Li, Associate Curator of Asian Art and Global Contemporary Art, WAM Updates blog, July 2018
November 20, 2022: Yukio Lippit, Jeffrey T. Chambers and Andrea Okamura Professor of the History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University, presents Making and Meaning in Japanese Ukiyo-e.
April 15, 2021: Monika Bincsik, Ph.D., Diane and Arthur Abbey Assistant Curator for Japanese Decorative Arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, presents an illustrated talk, Kimono Fashion in Kyoto. Watch the video.
June 12, 2020: Rachel Parikh, Ph.D., WAM's Associate Curator of the Arts of Asia and the Islamic World, shares a preview of the exhibition, The Kimono in Print: 300 Years of Japanese Design. Watch the video
Ukiyo-e.org is a comprehensive database of Japanese woodblock print images and metadata aggregated from a variety of museums, universities, libraries, auction houses, and dealers around the world. It includes an indexed text search engine of all the metadata provided by the institutions about the prints. All website content is available in both English and Japanese.