Natalie Van Vleck
Flanders Nature Center & Land Trust was founded in 1963 by Natalie Van Vleck, artist, farmer, businesswoman and environmentalist. Her legacy is a vision become reality of a place where others could experience the beauty of art in nature, learn about the importance of protecting the environment and sustain the rural traditions of the land she loved.
Natalie Van Vleck was born On October 19, 1901 in New York City to well-to-do parents. Her mother was a member of the Macy family and her father traced his lineage to the Dutch explorers. She attended the exclusive Brearley School and developed a talent for art at an early age. As a teenager, while still at Brearley, she studied with Agnes Richmond at the Art Students League in New York City. Upon graduation, she was accepted at Bryn Mawr College, but chose, instead, to study full-time at the Art Students League, under the tutelage of legendary teacher Robert Henri, the leader of the “Ashcan School.” Henri counseled his students to “follow their personal approach to painting rather than adhere to any individual’s strictures.” He encouraged his students to get to the core of the subject’s personality and convey the unique spirit and character.
While Henri’s principles served Natalie well, as she expressed her own vision, a greater influence on her art was another teacher at the Art Students League, Pratt Institute-trained Max Weber, who inspired the cubist and abstract elements in the work that Natalie produced during the 1920s. Weber’s style had its roots in African art. He believed that primitive art had a great life force and taught his students to nurture their intellectually adventurous spirits. At the time, Natalie Van Vleck was one of the very few cutting-edge women artists who worked in a progressive style.
In 1922, Natalie and a friend from the Art Students League traveled to Spain, Capri and Naples, living and painting there for four months. This began a period when Natalie would travel for up to six months at a time, to pursue her art. Her favorite and most influential locales were the islands of French Polynesia and in the Caribbean. Guadeloupe and Martinique furnished her with a festival of inspiration, with the landscapes full of color and the primitive spirit of the culture that her teacher, Max Weber, prized. She wrote: “A feast appeared before my eyes at any time—all this color and beauty among the people. The marvelous foliage—ferns—from the little delicate spray to the marvelous great tree ferns, perhaps unequalled anywhere else. The mountains, the gorges, the rivers everywhere…”
With a very strong work ethic that endured throughout her career, Natalie worked in other media, as well. Upon her return to New York City from the islands, she established a studio and gallery from which she displayed and sold wooden carved objects, including elaborately-detailed and hand-colored frames, mirrors, screens, panels, boxes, serving trays and cabinets. Her carvings were imbued with natural motifs. At this time, Natalie’s art encompassed three styles: cubist and abstract-influenced paintings; regionalist landscapes of the Connecticut countryside and tropical locales; and “arts and crafts.”
In 1926, her parents bought a farm and farmhouse along Flanders Road in Woodbury, Connecticut and decided to move there from New York City, permanently, the next year. With an inheritance she received, Natalie had a studio with living quarters and a carpentry shop built near her parents’ home. Full of light and decorated with furniture she had brought back from her European tours, Natalie’s studio offered her the perfect retreat, where she spent an enormous amount of time pursuing her art, when she was not painting in Polynesia.
In the 1930s, Natalie’s predominant technique had changed from cubism to a regionalist, precisionist style with hard-edged forms and rounded volumes, evoking a machine-age esthetic. Her Connecticut subjects were rural landscapes. In 1932, Natalie mounted a one-woman show of her paintings of Polynesia and the Connecticut countryside at the Brownell-Lambertson Galleries in New York City, to very mixed reviews. Although she may have been discouraged by the lack of unanimous praise and by the competition from a well-known society portrait artist cousin with the same name, Natalie was not desirous of public fame nor commercial success in the art world. A rugged individualist, Natalie had a well-developed sense of self. Just as she did not conform to any one school in her artistic style, she also did not conform to feminine sensibilities, cutting her hair short and preferring men’s clothing. She painted and created for her own satisfaction.
By 1934, with elderly parents, Natalie became more involved in the day-to-day operations of the family farm in Woodbury and, with the exception of local exhibits of former works, gave up her painting completely. She found a replacement for her art in the inspiration of the natural world around her. A star athlete at Brearley, Natalie competed in a turkey shoot among 150 others and won the top prize of a Bourbon Red turkey, which paired with a neighbor’s hen, became the foundation for her turkey farm. Soon, she was raising, preparing, shipping and freezing her special brand of birds all across the country. When she inherited the Woodbury farm with her mother’s death in 1942, Natalie acquired more land south of Church Hill Road and expanded the farm’s capabilities. Not only did the Van Vleck Farm produce turkeys for the commercial market, but it became fully sustaining, with Natalie growing and harvesting all the crops that she needed. Putting her carpentry skills to good use, she was also the “handyman,” performing minor repairs. By 1955, she turned her attention to raising Hampshire sheep, achieving the same business success as she had with her turkey farm. According to Flanders’ curator Marc Chabot, Natalie’s love of nature, which was so evident in her art, was transformed into her hands-on involvement with agriculture and animal husbandry. She made the landscape of the Van Vleck Farm, her palette.
During the 1960s, as suburban development began to encroach upon Woodbury’s agricultural traditions, Natalie Van Vleck sought ways to protect the land and environment that had inspired her in art, work and life, for so many years. In consultation with prominent environmentalists, she evolved the idea to develop a nature center on her property, preserving her farm’s traditions, and wrote the first strategic plan for its use. In 1963, Flanders Nature Center was chartered as a non-profit organization. Soon, educational activities began to take shape on “Natalie’s farm.” Flanders became one of the first land trusts in the area in 1973, with its initial gift of land in Woodbury.
The creative spirit is an affirmation of life with its passion, joy and the miracle of existence. Natalie Van Vleck took the time to look at nature and feel a sense of peace, renewal and joy: art in nature. It is that inspiration and legacy that she hoped would be shared with generations to come at her own Flanders Nature Center & Land Trust.
1. “Natalie Van Vleck: A Life In Art and Nature.” November 22, 1992. Sound View Press.
2. Interview with Marc Chabot, Curator, Van Vleck Collections, Flanders Nature Center & Land Trust