A pen and ink-wash drawing of a person riding a donkey and traversing an arched bridge in a rocky landscape.

The Art of Travel

All Themes

At A Glance

Over centuries, images depicting travel have transformed individual journeys into familiar routes and distant sites into iconic destinations, shaping perceptions of places both near and far. See how artists have depicted travelers across cultures, learn about the role of art in travel of various kinds, explore objects that have undertaken journeys of their own, and plan your own trip to the museum, whether in person or virtually.

Types of Travelers and Journeys

Motivations for travel throughout history have been almost as varied as the means of travel. Whether people traveled alone or in groups, on foot, on animals, in caravans, on ships, or using modern modes of transportation like planes, trains, and automobiles, art can capture how and why we move through the world.

  • The Travelers Rescue by the Great Bird (al-Tair al-Kabir), from <em>Ajaib al-makhluqat</em> (Wonders of Creation) by al-Qazvini is an object in the NMAA collection.
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    The Traveler's Rescue by the Great Bird (al-Ta'ir al-Kabir), from Aja'ib al-makhluqat (Wonders of Creation) by al-Qazvini
  • Two travelers in the rain is an object in the NMAA collection.
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    Two travelers in the rain
  • Travelers at a Mountain Way-Station is an object in the NMAA collection.
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    Travelers at a Mountain Way-Station

Marco Polo (1254–1324) was a Venetian merchant who spent about seventeen years in China—from around 1274 to 1292—during the reign of the Mongol emperor Khubilai Khan (reigned 1260–94), founder of the Yuan dynasty. In 1276, Khubilai’s armies conquered the Chinese capital at Hangzhou with minimal destruction. Sometime after this, Marco Polo visited the city and its West Lake:

Scenic Attractions of West Lake 西湖清趣圖 is an object in the NMAA collection.
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Scenic Attractions of West Lake 西湖清趣圖

Imagine yourself alongside travelers in a snowy landscape through this guided meditation:

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Video | "Meditation and Mindfulness: Winter travelers crossing a bridge" | View on YouTube

Travel is a common theme in traditional Chinese landscape painting. From ancient times, the emperors of China maintained a network of roads and waterways that unified their vast realm and facilitated the movement of people and goods. Owing to this imperial association, images of ordinary travelers on the empire’s roads and rivers connoted the benevolent rule of an enlightened sovereign and evoked an era of peace and prosperity. Rather than documenting the hardships or actual circumstances of any particular journey, images of anonymous characters traveling or working together capture some of the noteworthy sights and scenes a traveler might encounter along the way. Simultaneously, they promote the fundamental ideals of a harmonious society and a well-ordered state.

A dramatic topography features a complex and dominant rock formation in the left foreground and a sudden recession into distant space on the right. On the left, sheer cliffs and a waterfall plunge through a channel worn in the cliff by the water. On the right, a slightly more hospitable terrain provides a base for several structures that seem to be scholars’ hermitages or villas. In the left foreground a lone figure on a donkey crosses a bridge at the base of the waterfall. He is followed at a distance by a servant who travels on foot and carries his master’s stringed instrument, the chin. The image refers to a standard Chinese subject: a scholar-official journeying to seek the company of kindred spirits in their mountain retreats. The scale of the natural world overwhelms the small human forms.

Landscape is an object in the NMAA collection.
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One of the most enduring motivations for travel is religious devotion. Nearly every major religion—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Sikhism, among others—has a tradition of pilgrimage: intentional travel to a site of spiritual significance. Christian pilgrims traveled to the Holy Land to walk in the footsteps of Christ or visited more local destinations connected to the lives or relics of the saints. In Islam, pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca is one of the principal duties of all believers. Other holy sites were also visited on a regular basis. Over many centuries, hundreds of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean pilgrims braved countless dangers to visit places where the Historical Buddha lived and taught. Pilgrims would sometimes bring gifts, called votive offerings, with them as a donation to the destination site.

Pilgrims map of Mount Fuji and surrounding temples is an object in the NMAA collection.
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Pilgrims' map of Mount Fuji and surrounding temples
Pilgrims on Mt. Fuji is an object in the NMAA collection.
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Pilgrims on Mt. Fuji
A view of Mecca
Blog | “Memories of Mecca and Medina” | Read a personal reflection of being a pilgrim, written in 2016 by Sana Mirza.
Map of Asia, showing Hyecho's travel route
Interactive | Hyecho, an Eighth-Century Buddhist Pilgrim | Read about a young Korean monk named Hyecho, who left China to travel over land and sea through the Buddhist holy land of India, as far west as Iran, and back to northern China.

Trade was another common motivation for travel and occurred in many forms, but the most famous trade route in history was the Silk Road, the overland trade routes that linked the prosperous Tang empire (618–907) with Central, West, and South Asia. On the Silk Road, foreign merchants joined Buddhist missionaries, diplomatic envoys, translators, craftsmen, entertainers, and other skilled immigrants in a wealthy, worldly environment that offered a ready market for exotic imports, including silver and gold objects, delicate glassware, and even grape wine.

detail from the sogdians online exhibition homepage showing a sculpture including figures on the back of a camel
Exhibition| The Sogdians: Influencers on the Silk Roads | Learn about the Sogdians—an ancient Silk Road people whose major influence on world art, culture, and trade has only begun to be fully understood in the last fifty years—through this online exhibition.

In the twentieth century, travel offered a key means for diplomacy and cultural exchange. Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1884–1980), Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, embarked on a tour of Asia accompanying William Howard Taft’s goodwill mission in 1905. This voyage is immortalized in a series of photographs but also through diplomatic gifts that dignitaries, such as the emperor of Japan, bestowed on Roosevelt.

Adventurers, archaeologists, and scholars have long been traversing the globe to conduct research and to explore foreign lands. In the early twentieth century, leisure travel among Europeans and North Americans also became increasingly common. Fascinated by the cultural heritage of Asia and the Middle East, tourists began to expand their horizons by venturing there.

Artists who traveled played a pivotal role in documenting and popularizing their visions of the distant places they visited. Their interactions with other artists and the things they experienced on their journeys contributed to the dispersal of different artistic styles and motifs.

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797–1858) immortalized his 1832 trip along the Tōkaidō, the most important and heavily traveled of the five major routes that linked other regions of Japan to the administrative and political seat of the shogun’s government in Edo (modern Tokyo). He created more than twenty full series of Fifty-Three Stations along the Tōkaidō, featuring designs of the lively activities and magnificent landscapes he witnessed and reimagined in his prints. Prints like these gave people throughout Japan access to images of sights and events that most had not experienced, in the same way that videos, photos, and the internet do today.

Fujieda, from the series, Gojusan tsugi meisho zue is an object in the NMAA collection.
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Fujieda, from the series, Gojusan tsugi meisho zue

Though James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) was born in the United States, he spent most of his life in Europe and was based in London. The artist traveled to explore the canals of Venice and Amsterdam and the back alleys of Paris. He ventured further afield to Valparaiso, Chile, in 1866, just as hostilities between the Spanish and Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia were heating up over the Chincha Islands, sites of a precious nineteenth-century fertilizer: bat guano.

Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Valparaiso is an object in the NMAA collection.
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Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Valparaiso
Detail, Japanese print depicting a boat ride on a river, with cherry blossoms
Blog | “LONELY PLANET in Edo-period Japan: Meisho Zue” | Read about illustrated travel books in nineteenth-century Japan and browse digitized versions from the National Museum of Asian Art’s library in this blog post by librarian Reiko Yoshimura.

While travel has mostly positive connotations in popular culture today, it’s important to remember the darker sides of travel as well. Not all travel is undertaken by choice: people can be forced to travel as a result of political exile, as well as due to war, famine, disease, economic hardship, environmental disaster, and colonialism. Even when travel is voluntary, it can be dangerous, and this was particularly true in ages past. The physical act of traveling exposed people to potential injuries and diseases, the natural elements were unpredictable and threatened modes of transportation, and there was an inherent unpredictability to being on the road far from home. The recognition of these dangers shaped stories and cultural beliefs.

This print depicts a type of supernatural creature often known as an umibōzu, or “sea monk.” It was believed that when calm waters suddenly turned choppy and dangerous, particularly at night, these creatures could appear and drag sailors to the bottom of the seabed. Although the encounter was often deadly, the artist Kuniyoshi has paired the place name “Kuwana” with the similar-sounding name “Kuwanaya Tokuzō,” one of the few who encountered the umibōzu and lived to tell the tale.

Kuwana: The Story of the Sailor Tokuzō, from the series <em>Fifty-three Pairings for the Tōkaidō Road (Tōkaidō gojūsan tsui)</em> 「桑名 船のり徳蔵の傳」 『東海道五十三対』 is an object in the NMAA collection.
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Kuwana: The Story of the Sailor Tokuzō, from the series Fifty-three Pairings for the Tōkaidō Road (Tōkaidō gojūsan tsui) 「桑名 船のり徳蔵の傳」 『東海道五十三対』

Traveling Objects

Objects themselves have rich histories and often undertook journeys of their own, whether through trade, gift giving, or collecting. For conservators, the journey of an item is embedded within its material presence; marks, scars, repairs, and other interventions describe the actions of others who have contributed to its present state. The process of conservation involves the synthesis of material evidence and its placement in time, not just to understand an item’s past but to envision its future preservation. Anthropologists have described the trajectories of material items in terms of their lives, biographies, or itineraries, but such notions are intuitively familiar to conservators, whose actions are fundamentally additive to an item’s journey, both materially and through time.

Individual travelers carried things with them that were essential for the journey itself. Clothing and equipment suitable to traversing long distances sometimes set them apart from local residents, and travelers carried personal effects and accessories, such as small books, drinking flasks, and protective amulets, to make the journey easier.

Saddlebag Face is an object in the NMAA collection.
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Saddlebag Face

Traveling Dining Service (Knife and Chopsticks) is an object in the NMAA collection.
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Traveling Dining Service (Knife and Chopsticks)

Travelers brought objects acquired on their journeys home with them as well. Holy objects acquired by pilgrims allowed them to bring the blessings of their pilgrimage back from their destination. Images made during travel—whether sketches, paintings, or photographs—captured the experience of the journey for future reflection. Souvenirs purchased during a trip also offered travelers a way of commemorating a journey and gave them something tangible on which to reflect. The advent of commercial global travel networks in many cultures and contexts was accompanied by a flood of photographs, drawings, postcards, mementos, and other means of recording scientific and sentimental experiences abroad. Perhaps the most recognizable artifact of travel over the past 150 years is the picture postcard. These were collected as mementos or mailed to family and friends from abroad, accruing the additional prestige of a foreign stamp and postmark.

Virtual Travel

Most travel we think of involves physically moving between places, but virtual travel (colloquially, “armchair travel”) that takes place in the mind spans time and cultures and is facilitated by books and works of art. Through focused contemplation of a travel account, a map, a cherished souvenir, or images of far-off places, memory and imagination combine to transport someone mentally and to simulate the experience of travel.

In artist Katsushika Hokusai’s (1760–1849) time, Edo, one terminus of the Tōkaidō, was a metropolis with a population of more than one million. The wide Sumida River (Sumidagawa), which marked the city’s eastern border, is the focus of the illustrations in this three-volume collection of contemporary comic verse (kyōka). Hokusai creates the illusion of an uninterrupted land journey along the Sumida from south to north, against the river’s flow. The landscape continues as each page is turned, as if one were viewing a scroll or folding album painting. Hokusai’s shifts from close-up to bird’s-eye views add to the dynamic and cinematic quality of the viewer’s experience. Hokusai’s books provide a virtual journey that begins in the first volume at Edo Bay with a view of Mount Fuji and ends in the third volume at Edo’s Yoshiwara pleasure district, decorated for the New Year. Access to the Yoshiwara was restricted by regulations of the shogun’s government. The route to the pleasure district, with its restaurants and beautiful female entertainers and sex workers, was therefore traveled by few, except in fantasy.

Ehon Sumidagawa ryōgan ichiran 絵本隅田川両岸一覧 is an object in the NMAA collection.
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Ehon Sumidagawa ryōgan ichiran 絵本隅田川両岸一覧
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Video | "Virtual Travel: Japanese Illustrated Books of the 19th Century" | View on YouTube

Online experiences can offer a twenty-first-century version of virtual travel, with tools like Google Earth allowing us access to almost any destination through our screens. Explore the museum’s digital interactives for some virtual travel of your own: to the museum itself, to places around the world, or to the past.