The John Chandler Bancroft Collection

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.


Katsukawa Shunsen (1762–about 1830), Standing Courtesan with Winged Dragon Obi, early 19th century, woodblock print: ink and color on paper Utagawa Kunisada II (1823–1880), Women Divers for Shells of the Awabi at Ise, 1865, woodblock print: ink and color on paper Suzuki Haruobu (1725-1770), Sekidera Komachi, 1768, woodblock print: ink and color on paper Utagawa Hiroshige I (1797–1858), 'The City Flourishing - Tanabata Festival', from the series 'One Hundred Famous Views of Edo', 1856, woodblock print: ink and color on paper After Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849), Flute and Japanese Lute, c. 1890, woodblock print: ink and color on paper Morning Glory, Grown by Shukaen Of Kameido, n.d., Edo, woodblock print: ink and color on paper Kitagawa Utamaro (1750s-1806), 'Misosazai Ni Shigi' from the series 'Momo Chidori Kyoka Awase', about 1791, woodblock print: ink and color on paper Kikugawa Eizan (1787- 1867), The Courtesan Chōdayū of the Okamotoya, 1830, woodblock print: ink and color on paper Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797–1861), 'Asakusa Imado' from the series 'Famous sights of the Eastern Capital', about 1835, woodblock print: ink and color on paper Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), 'Kirifuri Waterfall on Mount Kurokami in Shimotsuke Province' from the series 'A Tour of Waterfalls in Various Provinces', c. 1833, woodblock print: ink and color on paper

View the Collection Online

The entire John Chandler Bancroft Collection can be accessed through WAM’s online collection search.

A screenshot of a page of objects in the John Chandler Bancroft Collection online

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.


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
February, 2021

Learn More

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.

WAM Publications

Related Programs

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 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.