Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 20, 2023
Ross Barrett Speculative Landscapes: American Art and Real Estate in the Nineteenth Century Oakland, CA: University of Califoria Press, 2022. 256 pp.; 85 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780520343917)

Years ago, as a graduate student researching Winslow Homer, I drove a rental car to Prouts Neck to get a better sense of the views the artist painted when living on the Maine coast. What I found was a single road leading to a mile-wide promontory well marked with signs accusing me of trespassing. Reluctant to turn back, I parked along the last stretch of public road and walked furtively past manicured gardens and stately summer residences towards Homer’s studio (which at the time had not yet opened to the public). As I walked, it became increasingly clear that I did not fit the demographic of the affluent neighborhood—that I would appear suspicious, even criminal. What I did not realize then was that my discomfort at Prouts Neck was orchestrated, in part, by Homer himself, who along with his father and brothers transformed the promontory through their late nineteenth-century real estate dealings into the exclusive (and hostile-to-outsiders) enclave it remains today.

I am now well informed of Homer’s real estate dealings as well as those of other painters who dabbled in development, thanks to Ross Barrett’s new book, Speculative Landscapes: American Art and Real Estate in the Nineteenth Century. In addition to Homer, Barrett digs into the “fiscal lives” (172) of Daniel Huntington, John Quidor, Eastman Johnson, and Martin Johnson Heade, following their travails in the land markets of the northeastern suburbs, midwestern frontier, and seacoast resorts of the mid to late nineteenth century. These artists’ experiences in speculation, Barrett argues, led them to create genre and landscape paintings about the financial risks and social and environmental costs of real estate capitalism.

Barrett’s book is deeply invested in social justice. Rather than focusing on just the abstract nature of real estate—boom and bust cycles, speculation on paper, insecure loans, and the other notorious hallmarks of modern property transactions—Barrett turns our attention to social, environmental, and corporeal issues such as oppressive labor, gentrification, and ecological damage. This approach is presented at a crucial turning point in each chapter’s narrative. In each case, an artist who began speculating with enthusiasm during a lucrative land boom eventually experiences a change of heart, a pessimism that arises either from their own financial failures or a growing awareness of the consequences of their economic success. It is this later disenchantment that Barrett brings to the fore when analyzing specific works of art as pessimistic or parodic portrayals of the real estate economy. The dozen or so key pictures that Barrett carefully analyses form what the author boldly classifies as an “alternative painterly tradition” (11) of artworks that punctured the operative fictions of real estate boosters and “plumbed the dark material realities” of the industry (15).   

Speculative Landscapes proceeds chronologically, beginning with a set of Daniel Huntington’s commissioned landscapes advertising a new Hudson Valley development in the 1830s, which collapsed before it was fully built. While those early commissions are no longer extant, Barrett suggests that Huntington’s later backwater landscapes and religious allegories are attempts to renounce the physical topographies and modes of looking that land developers favored in the region. The second chapter is set in the same era but focuses on the frontier Midwest, where the genre painter John Quidor found initial success in a frontier land boom before a disastrous scheme ended his real estate career. Barrett focuses on a group of paintings inspired by a comedic Washington Irving story about speculation and argues that Quidor’s reworking of the story’s scenes of financial folly critiques the real estate market which had caused his own ruin.

The book then moves into the second half of the nineteenth century. In chapter three, Eastman Johnson’s paintings of Grand Portage, Michigan, and Nantucket, Massachusetts are focal points since the artist had financial stakes in the development of these remote outposts. In both regions, Johnson pictured the ways in which real estate development had altered the lives of local people. In Michigan, settlers were disrupting the seasonal patterns of Ojibwe people, whose encampments Johnson painted, and on Nantucket Island, development was transforming a one-time whaling station into a tourist resort, disenfranchising the long-time residents that Johnson pictured engaged in agricultural life.

The growth of resort communities is also the subject of the final two chapters on Martin Johnson Heade’s participation in “Florida Fever” and Winslow Homer’s development of Prouts Neck, both at the close of the nineteenth century. Heade spent the second half of his career in St. Augustine, Florida painting souvenir canvases for a growing number of northerners seeking a balmy getaway. He was not just an investor in the town’s redevelopment but also a noted local personality with a studio on the vacationers’ tour circuit. Barrett suggests that Heade’s landscape of a stormy marsh, On the Saint Sebastian River, Florida (1886–88), was a subversive vision of local real estate enterprises even though it served as a demonstration piece displayed in Heade’s studio. The contradiction is not necessarily uncharacteristic of Heade, an artist of notable wit and sarcasm, but Barrett’s racialized reading of the work at the end of the chapter is less convincing. Focusing on the marsh setting, Barrett suggests that Heade was presenting his white, bourgeois clients with a marginalized space associated with African-American settlement and labor. While no doubt accurate from a demographic perspective (the book as a whole is deeply researched in areas of social history), it seems unlikely that Heade, an artist who was repeatedly openly racist against people of color, would have wanted buyers to appreciate the Black laborers of his community. Acknowledging biographical facts, Barrett treads carefully, calling Heade’s painting “. . . an expression of a racialized outlook on economic matters” rather than a work of racial activism (133).

Heade is not the only artist in the book whose politics is ambiguous and therefore troublesome for Barrett’s bold claims about the political subversiveness of a whole painterly tradition. In his chapter on Quidor for instance, Barrett writes extensively about development’s ill effects on the enslaved people in Illinois, but then must reckon with the artist’s pejorative, minstrel-like Black figures. Similarly, in the chapter on Johnson, Barrett emphasizes the plight of Indigenous people and agricultural laborers being displaced or exploited by developers when Johnson’s paintings of these same communities fulfilled stereotypes and nostalgic fantasies held by outsiders. In both cases, the extensively researched accounts of race and labor relations feel out of sync with the intentions behind the works of art. A most level-headed scholar, Barrett resists the temptation to overstep or to brush away such contradiction. He describes one of Johnson’s Nantucket pictures, for example, as a work that simultaneously underwrites and critiques the island’s real estate transformation. The challenge is that while Barrett wants to proclaim the birth and development of a progressive, subversive pictorial tradition in relation to real estate, the cadre of nineteenth-century white, male artists he has selected often fall short of his political expectations.  

Barrett is more convincing when able to tightly map artworks onto real estate’s politics, as he does in his final chapter on Winslow Homer. We learn, for instance, that the painter’s 1900 work Eastern Point depicts not just a tract of land that the family owned (and divided based on a coin toss) but a tidewater space where the demarcation of public commons and private property were difficult to chart and locally debated. Barrett shows that while Homer acted as a developer, groundskeeper, and plat-maker of his family’s Prouts Neck properties, he also maintained close friendships with local farmers who were increasingly driven out by gentrification and fishermen whose livelihoods were threatened by the privatization of the coastline. Barrett’s research here opens scholarly possibilities in Homer studies by making a strong case for a broader rethinking of the artist’s late works. While traditionalists may resist, there is great potential in reexamining Homer’s seascapes in relation to debates around coastal and marine access.  

For art historians of nineteenth-century US landscape and economics, Barrett’s book is a noteworthy contribution that both builds on earlier scholarship and presents new avenues for research. The intertwining of art and real estate has been part of the conversation in the field for nearly half a century. For the most part, however, scholars have dealt with real estate in the most general terms, as any form of property ownership, ignoring the nuances that Barrett’s deep archival work delivers. Homer’s or Johnson’s participation in development schemes will not be news to most Americanists, but knowledge of these dealings will tend to be anecdotal more than art historical. By taking these stories often related in the biographical asides of longer art historical studies seriously, Barrett has not just changed how we see key artists and artworks of the era but also introduced a new set of terms and visual practices—charts, maps, and their accompanying rhetoric—informing how we can understand land in art history.      

Maggie M. Cao
David G. Frey Associate Professor