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Carl Van Vechten

Born, 1880. Died, 1964

“Carl Van Vechten’s interest in Negroes, which began very early in his life, never waned. It reached its first climax in the production of his fifth novel, Nigger Heaven, in 1926, and continued to expand thereafter into a variety of activities – photography, special collections, articles, reviews, private and public support of Negro arts and letters, and quiet personal philanthropies of all sorts.” So wrote Edward Lueders, one of Van Vechten’s biographers, in 1965, shortly after Van Vechten’s death. (1)

Carl Van Vechten (1880 – 1964) was a white American journalist, writer, novelist and amateur photographer who has come to be particularly identified with the Harlem Renaissance and the subsequent decades of African-American creativity. Van Vechten was perhaps the consummate Negrophile, arguably believing himself to possess a particular empathy, sympathy and understanding of African-Americans, their culture, their mannerisms and so on. The absolute embodiment of Van Vechten’s Negrophilia was perhaps his notorious novel of Harlem life, in its assorted strata, Nigger Heaven. We can get a sense of Van Vechten’s thinking from the novel’s Prologue, in which the writer introduces us to ‘Anatole Longfellow, alias the Scarlet Creeper’. Written in what the reader is led to believe is the dialect or lingo of African-Americans, Van Vechten let it be known to the readers of Nigger Heaven that they “will find, at the end of this volume, a glossary of the unusual Negro words and phrases employed in this novel.”

A number of historians, biographers and researchers have written at some length or in passing, about the controversies generated by the novel. These have included the previously quoted Lueders, who concluded, improbably perhaps, that “If Nigger Heaven is not a great book, it is a very good one. Certainly, it was – and still could be – one of the important novels of our times.” (2)

Of greater interest and significance perhaps, is Van Vechten’s extensive folio of portraits of an almost infinite number of prominent and notable African Americans of achievement, spanning many different fields, from the Harlem Renaissance period right through to the early 1960s. The following list, by no means exhaustive, gives us a sense of Van Vechten’s formidable reach. James Weldon Johnson, photographed 1932; Aaron Douglas, 1933; Richmond Barthe, 1933; Paul Robeson, 1933; Claude McKay, 1934; Zora Neale Hurston, 1935; Bessie Smith, 1936; Arna Bontemps, 1939; Richard Wright, 1939; Horace Pippin, 1940; Countee Cullen, 1941; Jacob Lawrence, 1941; Alain Locke, 1941; Langston Hughes, 1942; William H(enry) Johnson, 1944; Romare Bearden, 1944; W.E.B. du Bois, 1946; Pearl Bailey, 1946; Mary McLeod Bethune, 1949; Beauford Delaney, 1953; Roland Hayes, 1954; James Baldwin, 1955; and Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), 1962. Collectively, this body of portraiture represents an astonishing and truly singular look at the panorama of African-American creativity and expression during one of its most dynamic and epoch-making periods, that of the early to mid 20th century.

We should however be mindful not to decontextualise Van Vechten. He also photographed an equivalent body of distinguished and highly accomplished Europeans and white Americans. These included Marlon Brando, Laurence Olivier, Marc Chagall, Orson Welles, and Georgia O’Keefe.

Van Vechten’s portraits of African Americans have a particular and sobering poignancy when set against the turbulence, triumphs, and mortality of his subjects. Unbeknown to both photographer and subject, Van Vechten photographed his friend James Weldon Johnson a few short years before he died tragically in a car accident. He photographed Bessie Smith just a few months before she too was to die tragically as a result of a car accident. Van Vechten photographed Richard Wright on the eve of the publication of what was to become Wright’s defining work and one of the most important examples of American literature of the mid 20th century, Native Son. He photographed William H Johnson a few short years before his demons effectively possessed him and he lived out the remaining decades of his life in an institution, showing no interest in the painting that had for such a long time been a central aspect of his existence. Likewise, Van Vechten photographed Beauford Delaney some years before he too was to do battle with his demons. Van Vechten was responsible for the iconic photographs of Zora Neale Hurston which have endured as charming as well as intriguing and enigmatic portraits of this hugely important writer.

Van Vechten had what was perhaps a limited style of photography. His subjects were invariably photographed (in monochrome) as portraits or as fuller length, with backgrounds often no more than a few inches behind them. Apart from Van Vechten’s studies of dancers, few of his images give the viewer any substantial sense of what it is the subjects did as a calling, or for a living.

American literature has not, contrary to Lueders’ hopes, accorded a substantial place for Van Vechten’s literature. Similarly, American photography does not count Van Vechten as one of its 20th century greats. Nevertheless, Van Vechten is an image-maker of huge significance, as the provider of a fascinating glimpse of many of the towering African-American personalities of the 20th century.

Van Vechten’s work was included in the exhibition Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance, which toured to galleries in the UK and the USA in 1997 and 1998.

(1) Carl Van Vechten, by Edward Lueders, College and University Press, New Haven, 1965, p. 95

(2) Carl Van Vechten, by Edward Lueders, College and University Press, New Haven, 1965, p.106



Related items

click to show details of Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century

»  Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century

Book relating to a publication, 1997

click to show details of Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance

»  Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 1997

Related exhibitions

Related venues

»  Arnolfini

Bristol, United Kingdom

»  The Corcoran Gallery of Art

Washington D.C., United States of America

»  Hayward Gallery

London, United Kingdom

»  Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre

Coventry, United Kingdom

»  M.H. de Young Memorial Museum

San Francisco, United States of America