Beauty & Bravado In Japanese Woodblock Prints

Introduction by Graphic Arts Curator, Julie Mellby

In 1947, when Gillett Griffin was a student at Yale University’s School of Fine Arts, one of his professors invited a Japanese print dealer to visit. Gillett’s eye fell on a small black-and-white print, which he purchased for the enormous sum of $2.00. The dealer was impressed that such a young man would see the beauty in what turned out to be a print by Hishikawa Moronobu (d. 1694). Gillett rushed to the library to read everything he could about this genre, and it was as though a whole new world opened up to him. He was hooked.

Four New York art sales that winter featured Japanese prints, three at Parke-Bernet and one at Gimbels Department Store (both Gimbels and Macy’s sold fine art in those days). Gillett made it to three of the four sales, and by the end of the year had a collection of almost seventy classic Japanese woodblock prints. “I really had no money,” said Gillett. “But this was only a few years after Pearl Harbor and there was still a great deal of hostility and so, not many buyers.”

Gillett left New Haven in 1952 to succeed Elmer Adler as Curator of Graphic Arts in Firestone Library’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, where he remained until 1966. Even after moving across campus to take the position of Research Curator of Pre-Columbian and Native American Art at the Princeton University Art Museum, Gillett still cared for and helped to support the Graphic Arts collection.

This exhibition presents highlights from a collection of Japanese (and a few Chinese) prints and drawings that Gillett has generously donated to the Graphic Arts Division in honor of former curator Dale Roylance. The entire collection is available for viewing at the Princeton University Library’s digital website: We are indebted to Laura J. Mueller, a scholar who specializes in Japanese prints from the period 1770-1900. Her essay for this keepsake offers a tantalizing glimpse into the many rich treasures to be found in the gallery and online. It is hoped that you, like the young Gillett, will rush to the library to see and learn more.

Leonard L. Milberg Gallery for Graphic Arts, Firestone Library, Princeton University