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.

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  • René Magritte imagines the Alps 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.

René Magritte (1898-1967), Le domaine dArnheim, 1938. Oil on canvas. 28⅝ x 39⅜  in (72.8 x 100  cm). Sold for £10,245,000 on 28 February 2017 at Christie’s in London. Artwork © Rene Magritte, DACS 2020

René Magritte (1898-1967), Le domaine d'Arnheim, 1938. Oil on canvas. 28⅝ x 39⅜ in (72.8 x 100 cm). Sold for £10,245,000 on 28 February 2017 at Christie’s in London. Artwork: © Rene Magritte, DACS 2020

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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  • Abraham-Louis-Rodolphe Ducros imagines Rome  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.

Abraham-Louis-Rodolphe Ducros (Yverdon 1748-1810 Lausanne), A Capriccio with Roman Architecture. c. 1784. Black chalk, pen and brown ink, watercolour, gum arabic. 27⅜ x 40  in (69.3 x 101.7 cm). Sold for £11,250 on 3 July 2018 at Christie’s in London

Abraham-Louis-Rodolphe Ducros (Yverdon 1748-1810 Lausanne), A Capriccio with Roman Architecture. c. 1784. Black chalk, pen and brown ink, watercolour, gum arabic. 27⅜ x 40 in (69.3 x 101.7 cm). Sold for £11,250 on 3 July 2018 at Christie’s in London

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.

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  • John Martin imagines Egypt 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.

John Martin (1789-1854), The Destruction of Pharaohs Host, 1836. Pencil and watercolour with gum arabic heightened with bodycolour and with scratching out. 23 x 33¾  in (58.4 x 85.7  cm). Sold for £758,050 on 3 July 2012 at Christie’s in London

John Martin (1789-1854), The Destruction of Pharaoh's Host, 1836. Pencil and watercolour with gum arabic heightened with bodycolour and with scratching out. 23 x 33¾ in (58.4 x 85.7 cm). Sold for £758,050 on 3 July 2012 at Christie’s in London

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.

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  • Henri ‘Le Douanier’ Rousseau imagines Algiers Paysage d’Alger, 1880

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.

Le Douanier Rousseau (1844-1910), Paysage dAlger, 1880. Oil on canvas. 37.8 x 60.8  cm (14¾ x 24  in). Sold for €385,000 on 23 May 2012 at Christie’s in Paris

Le Douanier Rousseau (1844-1910), Paysage d'Alger, 1880. Oil on canvas. 37.8 x 60.8 cm (14¾ x 24 in). Sold for €385,000 on 23 May 2012 at Christie’s in Paris

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.

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  • Kano Naizen imagines Portugal 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’.

Attributed to Kano Naizen (1570-1616), Southern Barbarians Come to Trade. Ink, colour, gold and gold leaf on paper. 63 x 142¼ in (160 x 360.4 cm) each 	 (2). Sold for $4,786,500 on 23 March 2011 at Christie’s in New York

Attributed to Kano Naizen (1570-1616), Southern Barbarians Come to Trade. Ink, colour, gold and gold leaf on paper. 63 x 142¼ in (160 x 360.4 cm) each (2). Sold for $4,786,500 on 23 March 2011 at Christie’s in New York

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.

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  • George Frederick Watts imagines Mount Ararat Ararat, 1885

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.

George Frederic Watts, O.M., R.A. (1817-1904), Ararat, 1890. 56½ x 28½  in (143.5 x 72.5  cm). Oil on canvas. Sold for £42,500 on 15 November 2007 at Christie’s in London

George Frederic Watts, O.M., R.A. (1817-1904), Ararat, 1890. 56½ x 28½ in (143.5 x 72.5 cm). Oil on canvas. Sold for £42,500 on 15 November 2007 at Christie’s in London

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.’

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  • Giulio Rosati imagines the Orient 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.

Giulio Rosati (Italian, 1858-1917), Backgammon Players in a Courtyard. Pencil and watercolour on paper. 16⅛ x 23⅜ in (41 x 59.5  cm). Sold for £145,250 on 2 July 2008 at Christie’s in London

Giulio Rosati (Italian, 1858-1917), Backgammon Players in a Courtyard. Pencil and watercolour on paper. 16⅛ x 23⅜ in (41 x 59.5 cm). Sold for £145,250 on 2 July 2008 at Christie’s in London

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.

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  • An Italian painter imagines Constantinople 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.

Italian School, View of Constantinople, circa 1600. Oil on canvas. 71¼ x 110  in (180.9 x 279.4  cm). Sold for £200,000 on 6 December 2018 at Christie’s in London

Italian School, View of Constantinople, circa 1600. Oil on canvas. 71¼ x 110 in (180.9 x 279.4 cm). Sold for £200,000 on 6 December 2018 at Christie’s in London

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.

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  • Noel Harry Leaver imagines North Africa 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.

Noel Harry Leaver (1889-1951), Arabs Selling Their Wares Before a Mosque. Pencil and watercolour heightened with bodycolour. 10 x 13⅞  in (25.4 x 35.3  cm). Sold for £3,000 on 3 September 2013 at Christie’s in London

Noel Harry Leaver (1889-1951), Arabs Selling Their Wares Before a Mosque. Pencil and watercolour heightened with bodycolour. 10 x 13⅞ in (25.4 x 35.3 cm). Sold for £3,000 on 3 September 2013 at Christie’s in London

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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  • Frederic Church imagines Maine as South America 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.

Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), A New England Lake, 1854. Oil on canvas. 30 x 42  in (76.2 x 106.7  cm). Sold for $1,812,500 on 21 November 2017 at Christie’s in New York

Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), A New England Lake, 1854. Oil on canvas. 30 x 42 in (76.2 x 106.7 cm). Sold for $1,812,500 on 21 November 2017 at Christie’s in New York

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.