A History of Collecting on Display in Japan on Paper

June 19, 2019
Index Magazine

A History of Collecting on Display in Japan on Paper

Woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai of nine figures in front of Mount Fuji.
Katsushika Hokusai, Sazai Hall of the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats. From the series Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, c. 1830–31. Woodblock print. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of the Friends of Arthur B. Duel, 1933.4.2707.

Renowned for their technical sophistication and colorful imagery, Japanese woodblock prints have appealed to viewers for centuries. They have also been a source of fascination for a generous group of Harvard alumni and affiliates.

Through gifts made to the Fogg Museum as early as 1910, Japanese woodblock prints were among the earliest examples of Asian art to enter the museums’ collections. Since then, donors’ extraordinary gifts and careful stewardship by curators have seen the collection blossom to approximately 5,000 single-sheet prints. Luxury surimono prints, printed handscrolls, and printed books by renowned designers such as Suzuki Harunobu (1725–1770), Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858), Sharaku (active 1794–95), Itō Jakuchū (1716–1800), and Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) are among the holdings in the collection. 

Highlights are featured in Japan on Paper, on view through August 11, 2019. The exhibition explores this museums’ woodblock print collection in depth, with a focus on both its growth and the history of Japanese printmaking. The exhibition is co-curated by Quintana Heathman, a former curatorial fellow in Japanese art (2014–16), and Rachel Saunders, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Associate Curator of Asian Art.

Transformative Moments 

The first dozen Japanese woodblock prints to enter the Fogg’s collection were given in 1910 by Owen F. Bryant (1882–1958; Harvard Class of 1904). President of a Canadian oil company, Bryant was also a natural history buff and an insect collector (the ground beetle Tachys bryanti was named for him). His gift, which included the work of artists Hokusai and Kitagawa Utamaro, represented the Fogg’s earliest foray into collecting these prints in earnest.

Another transformative gift came from Arthur B. Duel (1870–1936; Harvard M.D. 1894), a well-known New York doctor whose patients included several prominent print collectors. Duel enthusiastically collected Japanese art; in some cases, he acquired entire collections, such as the dazzling surimono of Colonel H. Appleton of Canada. 

When Duel’s collection of about 4,000 prints, along with a prepared catalogue and an entire research library, arrived at the Fogg in 1933, the size of the extremely generous gift took Fogg Museum director Edward Forbes by surprise. On the occasion of the gift, which was made by an anonymous group of Duel’s friends on his behalf, Forbes emphasized the teaching potential of the prints. He called out the collection’s importance “not only for the great beauty of the prints, but for the purpose of illustrating the history of woodblock printing in Japan and the study of Japanese costume and customs.”

Building a Robust Collection 

Bibliophile Philip Hofer (1898–1984; Harvard A.B. 1921, M.F.A. 1929) is estimated to have given more than 10,000 books, manuscripts, and prints to Harvard over his lifetime. His contributions to the Japanese woodblock print collection include rare and beautiful manuscripts, such as the 1510 Genji Album (the oldest known complete cycle of album leaves of The Tale of Genji) and printed books such as Utamaro’s Gifts of the Ebb Tide (see pages below).

In addition, physician Ernest G. Stillman (1884–1949; Harvard Class of 1908) gave a number of woodblock printing tools to the collection. Stillman purchased these objects during his travels in Japan in 1905. According to Quintana Heathman, the fact that collectors acquired such tools “tells us it was not only the stunning images of Japanese prints that captured their interest, but also the technical production process itself.”

Many other individuals made vital contributions to the collection. They include: 

  • Mary Morley Crapo Hyde (1912–2003), wife of Donald F. Hyde (Harvard L.L.B. 1932), who gifted the couple’s collection of Japanese calligraphy and manuscripts (including the Jakuchū handscroll below);
  • Arthur Davison Ficke (1883–1945; Harvard Class of 1904), author of the popular reference guide Chats on Japanese Prints (1915), who served as curator of Japanese prints early in the Fogg’s history;
  • Charles B. Hoyt (1889–1949), who gifted a range of works to the Fogg, including some from the 20th-century shin hanga (new prints) movement;
  • Denman W. Ross (1853–1935; Harvard A.B. 1875, Ph.D. 1880), a professor of art and design at Harvard, whose gifts of Japanese woodblock prints from the 17th to the 19th century helped broaden the collection;
  • Adrian Rübel (1903–1978; Harvard Class of 1926), a staunch supporter of Asian art research at Harvard, who gave mostly modern Japanese prints; and
  • Julia Isham Taylor (1866–1939), wife of lawyer and historian Henry Osborn Taylor (Harvard Class of 1878), who gifted many of the couple’s Japanese prints and printed books, including standouts such as Hokusai’s famous Manga


The foresight and generosity of these individuals have made it possible for generations of Harvard students to encounter and learn from these works. As the collection of Japanese woodblock prints continues to grow—most notably with the recent acquisition of works by contemporary artist Noriko Saitō, including a work that is featured in Japan on Paper—these objects allow the museums to tell a captivating story of American interest in Japanese woodblock printing, from the early 20th century to today.