Inspiration & Legacy
Natalie Van Vleck: The Cultivation of a Personal Aesthetic
Natalie Van Vleck was a gifted child, excelling at the Brearley School in New York City as both athlete and budding artist. Her short hair and boyish dress defied the conventional from an early age, and her decision to become an artist was made during a trip abroad with her parents at age twelve. It was the first of several trips she would later take as an artist to Europe and the tropics; fascinated with painting the exotic people and colorful landscapes so different from those of her own land.
At the age of fourteen, Natalie began study at the famed Art Student’s League. She worked first with portrait painter Agnes Richmond, a nurturing mentor, who soon directed her towards study with George Bridgman and Robert Henri, legendary leader of the Ashcan School. Bridgman taught her anatomy, but from Henri, Natalie learned to divine the inner life and character of her subject and manifest it in her portraits. She also produced numerous still life and landscape works. While her works from 1914-20 show increasing confidence and skill, the next two years would show a profound leap forward.
In 1921 Natalie entered Max Weber’s class at the League, remaining for two years. Weber, as arbiter of the avant-garde in America, studied with Arthur Wesley Dow and traveled to Paris; learning first hand about cubism in Picasso’s studio, organizing the first class with Matisse, and bringing home the first paintings by his friend Henri Rousseau to be shown in America. From Max Weber Natalie learned about cubist fracture and abstraction, expressive distortion, and the spiritual qualities embodied in great art of the ancients. He encouraged her to focus on her emotional response to the world around her, and let it resonate through her own art. Natalie began to produce strikingly bold and expressive work, informed by cubism and abstraction, which today distinguish her as among the vanguard of American women modernist painters, and perhaps the first female cubist. During this time she also produced a group of small woodcuts dynamic in their sophisticated abstract designs, and befriended Elsie Driggs, a lifelong friend and painter.
Natalie’s work from her travels abroad to paint starting in 1922 share the cubist treatment of form and space found in her New York subjects as well as increasingly vibrant color. She began to design and carve frames for these paintings as an extension of her personal aesthetic responses and expression. This same concept was central to the tenets of the Arts & Crafts movement in America, which passed from Dow through Weber to Natalie, and was manifest in the hand carved and painted frames, fire screens, decorative panels and boxes she made and sold through her New York studio and shop in 1924, along with furniture she later made for her Woodbury studio and on commission in the 30’s-40’s.
Moving to Woodbury, CT in 1926 and building her studio in 1928, Natalie’s work evolved into a harder edged, precisionist-regionalist aesthetic as she responded to the flora, fauna, and farms of her agrarian small New England town. Distortions of scale and conscious dislocations of space add a surrealist undertone to some of these works. A series of austere late portraits of women mark her last full focus on art, ending after 1934.
by Marc Chabot, Curator
Flanders Nature Center & Land Trust