Journeys of the mind — when artists dream of far-flung lands
Explore 10 paintings by artists who conjured distant lands without leaving their studios. Jessica Lack is your guide
‘The real voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes,’ wrote the novelist Marcel Proust. As a writer who spent much of his life in bed, the great modernist understood the power of treasured objects and the unconscious mind to evoke memories and imagine far-flung places.
Here we explore 10 paintings by artists who, like Proust, conjured up foreign lands, without leaving their studios.
Le domaine d’ Arnheim, 1938
The Belgian Surrealist René Magritte (1898-1967) named this painting after the 1846 short story The Domain of Arnheim by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). In German the word Arnheim means ‘home of the eagle’, which is reflected in Magritte’s imperious bird-mountain.
Poe’s story recounts the tale of a fabulously wealthy American who creates his own Xanadu, saying, ‘Let us imagine a landscape whose combined vastness and definitiveness — whose united beauty, magnificence and strangeness shall convey the idea of care, or culture… on the part of beings superior, yet akin to humanity.’
Magritte had never been to the Alps, but in 1926 he came across a photograph of the mountain range in a travel brochure and used it as inspiration for his bird-mountain. He was so pleased with the results that he painted the Alpine vista another nine times. It became one of his most enduring symbols.
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A Capriccio with Roman Architecture, circa 1784
This architectural fantasy of Rome by the Swiss artist Abraham-Louis-Rodolphe Ducros (1748-1810) is called a capriccio, a style of painting in which real buildings and ruins are reimagined in unpredictable, dream-like spaces.
The style was first introduced in the Renaissance era but came to prominence in the 18th century with the Grand Tour, as fashionable aristocrats from Northern Europe sought works that encapsulated their idealised visions of the ancient world, rather than its contemporary reality.
The Destruction of Pharaoh’s Host, 1836
Painted in 1836, this magnificent tsunami by the Romantic artist John Martin (1789-1854), illustrates a passage from Exodus when the Lord instructed Moses to stretch out his hand to release the waters and drown the Egyptians pursuing the fleeing Israelites.
Martin saw the world in apocalyptic terms, and sought to depict it that way, vastly exaggerating the scale of his panoramas in order to create maximum surprise. As he explained in 1828, ‘Seen through the mist of ages, the great becomes gigantic, the wonderful swells into the sublime.’
The artist has imagined Egypt as a fiery landscape. On the blood-red horizon Martin has only painted two, rather than the three Great Pyramids of Giza, which lie some 80 miles distant from the Red Sea.
Le Douanier Rousseau (1844-1910) famously never left France, yet it didn’t stop him from painting Africa as a dense and impenetrable jungle in which half-hidden and mysterious dramas unfurled.
Much of Rousseau’s inspiration for the African continent and its animals came from Paris’s Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle and the zoo and the botanical gardens. He was also a magpie collagist, borrowing scenes from postcards and other artists’ paintings to re-create exotic scenarios.
The mysterious nature of the painting Paysage d’Alger derives from this collaged approach. Rousseau discovered a set of engravings from which he constructed the scene. This technique of building the unknown from the known inspired many later modernists including Pablo Picasso.
The Southern Barbarians Come to Trade, circa 1600
This silk screen, attributed to Kano Naizen (1570-1616) imagines the faraway lands of the ‘Southern Barbarians’.
In the early 17th century Japan’s rulers began a policy known as sakoku, under which Westerners were banned from entering Japan, while the country’s own people were forbidden to leave. This period of self-imposed isolation continued for more than two centuries until the arrival of an American navy ship in 1854.
Prior to this enforced incarceration, Portuguese sailors (known as Southern Barbarians) were permitted to trade with the Japanese at the port of Nagasaki. In this work, court painter Naizen has imagined Portugal as a world of Christian, Mughal and Chinese influences, replete with horses and elephants, and lorded over by grand Pooh-bahs carried on medieval litters.
The Pre-Raphaelite artist George Frederick Watts (1817-1094) created this mystical depiction of Mount Ararat towards the end of his life, when he had come to imagine the mountain as a rhapsodic symbol of universal love. Watts had encountered the extinct volcanic peak on his travels through Asia Minor in 1856, but it was only some 30 years later that he came to paint it.
The artist has depicted the mountain at night, with the rocky hills rising up to an inky blue sky lit by a single star. When it was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1885, The Spectator reported, ‘It is one of those pictures of which Mr Watts alone has the secret, which is at once severe and beautiful, full of high thought and intense dignity. No one but a great figure-painter could paint landscape of this kind; the scene appears like the revelation of a landscape’s personality, a conception of the spirit of the place more than an actual record of its details.’
Backgammon Players in a Courtyard
The Orientalist painter Giulio Rosati (1858-1917) never travelled to the Middle East, but that didn’t stop him from becoming celebrated for his glittering cinematic fantasies of the Maghreb.
Each scene was meticulously constructed using oriental fabrics, carpets and costumes acquired in Rome from Spanish traders. The alluring exoticism of the East became highly fashionable among Europe’s elite in the late 19th century, feeding into furniture, textiles, the decorative arts and even architecture.
View of Constantinople, circa 1600
When Sultan Mehmet II rode into Constantinople on a white horse in 1453, it marked the end of 1,000 years of the Byzantine Empire. After holding out for 53 days the city had fallen, and as one eyewitness described it, ‘the blood flowed in the city like rainwater in gutters after a sudden storm’.
The Ottoman invasion of the East-Roman Empire caused dramatic reverberations. Constantinople had been a source of pride for Christians, and with its loss came a religious crisis in the Western world.
In response to the downfall, paintings were commissioned by wealthy Europeans keen to retain some symbolic and religious connection with the city. View of Constantinople was painted in Italy at the beginning of the 17th century by an artist who had never visited the metropolis — we know this because he has mistakenly painted the famous minarets square, rather than round.
Arabs Selling Their Wares Before a Mosque, circa 1910
Orientalism became hugely fashionable in the 19th century as steamships, the expansion of the railways, and travel agents such as Thomas Cook enabled intrepid tourists to traverse Europe for more exotic climes.
Back at home, artists were quick to take advantage of the new-found desire for Oriental-themed paintings and objects, and this interest continued into the early 20th century. Yorkshire-born artist Noel Harry Leaver (1889-1951) made his name painting imaginary towns along the North African coasts that strongly evoked the heat and light of the dusty Arabian souks.
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A New England Lake, 1854
The artist-explorer Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) was one of America’s foremost sublime artists, capturing the awesome grandeur of the country’s vast wildernesses. He understood that a landscape can create powerful emotions in the viewer, unlocking the subconscious and enriching the soul. As a result, his paintings became theatrical events, with people queuing up to experience such sensations.
This uncanny picture was created after the artist had been in South America, where he had been struck by the light and drama of the landscape. The intense white glare grazing the treetops and the glowing pink sky combine to create a transcendent vision that blended North and South America in his mind.