Armchair Travel—Imagining Faraway Places

June 17, 2020
In a verdant landscape with flowers and distant trees, a luxuriously dressed man sits with crossed legs on a golden throne. His head, graced by a turban with a tall feather, is surrounded by a halo. The throne is tied to five eagles’ talons. The fluttering birds eye two skewers of meat that are fastened to the throne.
Kay Kavus Seated on the Eagle-Powered Throne, illustrated folio from a manuscript of the Shahnama by Firdawsi, India, Mughal period, 17th–18th century. Ink, colors, and gold on paper. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of José M. Soriano in honor of Thomas W. Lentz and in memory of Stuart Cary Welch, 2015.63.18.

Works of art invite viewers to travel vicariously—into realms of the imagination, or to distant lands—whether for study or leisure. Our collections offer countless opportunities to explore unknown worlds.

Because most travel is currently canceled or suspended, curatorial colleagues are highlighting treasured works across the collections that have the power to propel viewers to different places and transcend boundaries. In the following, we meet kings, sages, scholars, tourists, and artists and collectors who expanded their horizons—and ours. 

Have Throne, Will Travel 

People’s desire for flying freely in the skies has a long history. In the Shahnama (Book of Kings), the Iranian national epic composed around 1010, we are told of an adventurous king in ancient Persia who wished to fly to the heavens. A Kashmiri copy of the Shahnama from the late 17th to early 18th century depicts the initial moments of this exciting journey. 

King Kay Kavus is pictured above with a glorious halo around his head representing the divine power (farrah) bestowed on him. The Demon of Rage seduced Kay Kavus by praising his divine splendor and encouraged him to rule the world from the heavens. The idea tempted the king, so he devised an ingenious scheme: he tied each corner of his golden, jewel-studded throne to the feet of an eagle and set up large skewers with chunks of succulent meat just beyond the birds’ reach. As the hungry eagles fluttered hard to get to the meat, the throne took off. Eventually, though, the birds grew tired, sending both throne and king plummeting to the earth. 

Luckily for the king, the Persian hero Rustam came to the rescue. This incident is one of many stories of Kay Kavus’s unbridled desires and foolish decisions, which invariably resulted in adversity for himself and his people.

Shiva Mihan, Schroeder Curatorial Fellow of Islamic Art, Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art

This vertical hanging scroll renders a mountainous landscape in monochrome ink. Three trees occupy the central foreground, where a hatted figure crosses a bridge at right to reach two figures in a thatched pavilion at left.
TL42147.43 Uragami Gyokudō, Quiet Pleasure in the Mountains, Japanese, Edo period, c. 1810. Hanging scroll; ink on paper. Promised gift of Robert S. and Betsy G. Feinberg, TL42147.43.

Landscapes of the Mind 

What we might today describe as imaginative armchair travel has been performed by Chinese scholar-gentlemen (or “literati”) for centuries as part of an array of modes of self-cultivation. Like poetry and calligraphy, landscape painting was most often practiced in the seclusion of the gentleman’s study, using only simple materials: namely ink, brush, and paper. The deliberately under-crafted results of their “amateur” brushes captured the experience of wandering in idealized remote landscapes either alone, or perhaps to meet with another reclusive scholarly friend for tea and conversation, or to share some music and wine. 

In early modern Japan, literati painting was taken up more as a painting style than as a lifestyle. No painter developed a more singular painterly idiom than Uragami Gyokudō (1745–1820), who, at the age of 50, retired from his position as a provincial bureaucrat. He spent the rest of his life traveling the archipelago with his sons, playing the zither, and painting in return for lodging. He received no formal training in painting but developed a uniquely expressive pictorial language that elaborated on a Chinese texture stroke known as the Mi dot, in which the brush is pressed onto the surface of the paper to form a fingerprint-like impression. Gyokudō transformed the Mi dot into a series of horizontal strokes to create shimmering landscapes, such as this unusually large painting. Each of his works invariably includes a traveler like the one seen here crossing the bridge in the foreground, who acts as your proxy guide into the vertiginous mountainous vista beyond. 

Rachel Saunders, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Curator of Asian Art, Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art

On the bank of a wide river, a seated man is approached by another man; both wear brimmed hats. Behind them, to the right, is a building with a steep roof, a chimney, and a tower with a turret. Floating in the river are two rowboats, each manned by two figures. Two stone structures rise out of the water. Beyond these is a wooden floating bridge supported by a row of boats. In the background are, at left, various buildings and, at center, a pyramidal hill.
2011.516 Lambert Doomer, Dutch, View of Rouen with Mont Sainte-Catherine, early 1670s. Brown ink, brown and gray wash, green transparent watercolor, and touches of white chalk on the sheet of an account book. The Maida and George Abrams Collection, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Gift of George Abrams in memory of Edward M. Kennedy, Harvard Class of 1954, 2011.516.

Time Travel 

In brown and silvery gray tones, the 17th-century Dutch artist Lambert Doomer evokes the cool, damp air of an overcast day in Rouen, a city on the Seine in northern France. The artist’s vantage point—from the south bank of the river, looking east—affords a view of several medieval monuments. Rising prominently in the distance is Mont Sainte-Catherine, named for the 11th-century abbey that once stood on its slope. At right stands the Barbacane, a 12th-century city gate fallen into disuse. In the middle of the river sit the stone remnants of Pont Mathilde, the bridge from which the ashes of Joan of Arc were thrown in 1431 and which was replaced by a pontoon bridge (also pictured here) in 1626. A 16th-century view of Rouen looking west from Mont Sainte-Catherine makes clear that Doomer chose to depict the city’s outskirts and ruins rather than its vibrant center. 

This drawing formed part of a series of some 130 views of French, German, and Dutch cities most likely commissioned from Doomer in the 1670s. In the tradition of 16th- and 17th-century city atlases and printed landscape series, which sometimes explicitly addressed those “without the time to travel far,” Doomer’s suite of drawings offered viewers a virtual tour of Europe, each turn of the album or portfolio page another step along the journey. The artist based this depiction of Rouen on sketches he had made more than 20 years earlier during his travels through France. Doomer signals his firsthand observation of the city with the seated figure on the riverbank. This man, seen from behind and wearing a traveler’s hat and cloak, corresponds to a well-established convention for depicting artists drawing outdoors, a practice much promoted in the period. The motif’s inclusion here asserts the view’s authenticity—an attribute prized by the 17th-century armchair traveler. 

Joanna Sheers Seidenstein, Stanley H. Durwood Foundation Curatorial Fellow, Division of European and American Art

A large city square with scattered passers-by features in its center an obelisk atop an ornate fountain. A domed church with twin towers and many stately houses surround the plaza on three sides. They cast deep shadows that, together with dramatically illuminated cloud formations, suggest bright sunlight.
2008.312.16 Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Italian, View of the Piazza Navona above the Ruins of the Circo Agona, 1751. Etching. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Permanent transfer from the Fine Arts Library, Harvard University, Gift of Thomas Palmer, Esq., of Boston, 1772, 2008.312.16.

Roman Holiday 

In 1772, Thomas Palmer, Esq., of Boston (1743–1820; Harvard Class of 1761) donated 14 volumes of prints by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1750–1810) to his alma mater. Palmer had purchased the prints in Rome during his Grand Tour, as documented by Lola Sánchez-Jáuregui in the Harvard Art Museums’ exhibition catalogue The Philosophy Chamber (2017; pp. 51–54). Piranesi, who was an architect, artist, and publisher, produced hundreds of etchings for foreign tourists eager to take home views—both real and imaginary—of the Eternal City and its ancient and modern monuments. The circumstances of Palmer’s encounter with Piranesi and the details of their relationship are not known. However, Piranesi dedicated a print to Palmer in a later series of work featuring designs for vases and candelabra; Palmer was the only individual from the colonies to receive such a distinction. For generations of Harvard students, these prints have provided guided tours through the streets, to monuments, and across the landscapes of Rome. Some of these prints remain bound in their original, paste-board bindings, providing rare evidence of how prints were “packaged” for sale and enjoyed by collectors in the last quarter of the 18th century. 

Elizabeth M. Rudy, Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Associate Curator of Prints, Division of European and American Art

A body of water in the foreground is surrounded by luscious tropical vegetation, including palm trees of various heights, textures, and tonalities. In a gray rowboat reflected in the calm water, a fisherman holds his rod high behind his back. A second, only schematically painted figure, dozes off behind him. Both wear hats and raincoats on what appears to be an overcast day.
1935.50 Winslow Homer, American, Homosassa Jungle, 1904. Watercolor on off-white wove paper. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Mrs. Charles S. Homer, in memory of the late Charles S. Homer and his brother, Winslow Homer, 1935.50.

Gone Fishin’ 

Winslow Homer painted this watercolor during a stay in Homosassa Springs, Florida, a turn-of-the-century resort town famous among the affluent for its subtropical freshwater springs. The waters are home to alligators, manatees, and in Homer’s words “fishing . . . the best in America as far as I can find!” In Homosassa Jungle, Homer depicts a pair of sport fishermen floating below a wild tangle of towering palm trees. Though the darkened sky suggests a tropical storm approaching, the fisherman—equipped with a protective raincoat and hat—casts his rod into the dark waters, an act of hope amid uncertainty.

In her 2008 book Watercolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light, Harvard Art Museums director Martha Tedeschi points out that Homer’s repeated trips to the tropics during the winter months, when life was bleak at his residence in Prout’s Neck in coastal Maine, allowed him “to push the flexible medium [of watercolor] in new directions as he applied his increasingly sophisticated understanding of color and light to a new set of atmospheric conditions” (p. 170). Collectors never tired of his brilliant watercolor technique and vicariously enjoyed the leisure and warmth of a tropical vacation through Homer’s eyes. 

Natalia Ángeles Vieyra, Maher Curatorial Fellow of American Art, Division of European and American Art

  • The drawing on squared paper shows a square with a red disc in the top center over a light brown vertical shape with uneven lines radiating from it to the right and left. A red line is roughly drawn below with thinner lines extending down in a zigzag pattern. In the lower left corner of the sheet is an octagonal shape outlined in brown with a palm tree in the center. Three of the sides on the left are surrounded by black with a brown streak and two black shapes on the right. A light gray oval partially encloses the octagon.
    of 2000.17 Sigmar Polke, German, Untitled, 1966. Watercolor and graphite on squared off-white wove paper. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Antonia Paepcke DuBrul Fund, American Friends of the Busch-Reisinger Museum Fund, and Purchase in memory of Eda K. Loeb, 2000.17. © Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany.
  • This black and white lithograph shows a black glove on a light foreground. The fingers and thumb are spread out and slightly twisted to form the shape of a palm tree. Text at the bottom reads “Handschuhpalme.”
    of 2013.27.6 Sigmar Polke, German, Glove Palm Tree, 1968. Offset lithograph in black ink on beige art paper. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Antonia Paepcke DuBrul Fund, 2013.27.6. © Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany.
  • This black and white lithograph shows a man with dark hair standing in a room barefoot on a dark floor with lighter walls behind and to the right. His head is slightly raised, and he is wearing white shorts with large cutouts of palm fronds around his neck. Text at the bottom reads “Polke als Palme.”
    of 2013.27.4 Sigmar Polke, German, Polke as Palm Tree, 1968. Offset lithograph in black ink on beige art paper. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Antonia Paepcke DuBrul Fund, 2013.27.4. © Estate of Sigmar Polke/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, Germany.


In West Germany in the 1960s, vacations, like televisions and automobiles, became a status symbol of the country’s rapid postwar recovery or “economic miracle.” Recently flush citizens of the Federal Republic flocked to warmer climes. In this 1966 drawing by Sigmar Polke (1941–2010), a sun sets or rises within an irregularly drawn square. Below it, a palm tree appears in an octagon within a further oblong shape. The artist’s deliberate, multiple “framing” of each motif suggests depictions of longing rather than lived experience. Indeed, no image offered a more potent critique of the decade’s rampant consumerism for Polke than the palm tree. Ubiquitous in domesticated versions in middle-class living rooms, or as decorative wallpaper in basement tiki bars, it exemplified the decade’s wanderlust, real or imagined. In Polke’s 1968 series Higher Beings Command, even an upended glove or the artist himself (in his undershorts and nearly choked by paper fronds) are transformed into palms, as seen above.

While a student at the Düsseldorf Art Academy in the 1960s, Polke made hundreds of such drawings on small sheets of inexpensive paper. Polke’s technical approach was deliberately crude; in addition to watercolor and graphite, he used ballpoint or felt-tipped pen. The Busch-Reisinger Museum recently received a major gift including nine more Polke drawings from the period— depictions of banal objects of everyday life now understood as specifically German pop art.

As we’ve all learned during these past weeks of limited mobility, humor, too, can be a great escape. Many a private collector I’ve met over the years has hung their prized drawing by the renowned German artist in a guest bathroom. One can’t help but think—as one sits and lets the mind wander—that the artist would approve.

Lynette Roth, Daimler Curator of the Busch-Reisinger Museum; Head, Division of Modern and Contemporary Art


Joachim Homann, the Maida and George Abrams Curator of Drawings in the Division of European and American Art, and Susanne Ebbinghaus, the George M.A. Hanfmann Curator of Ancient Art in the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art, compiled and edited the entries.