Carl Van Vechten

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Carl Van Vechten
Self-Portrait of Carl Van Vechten Crisco edit.jpg
Self-portrait (1934)
Born (1880-06-17)June 17, 1880
Cedar Rapids, Iowa, U.S.
Died December 21, 1964(1964-12-21) (aged 84)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Education Washington High School
Alma mater University of Chicago
Occupation Photographer
Spouse(s) Anna Snyder (m. 1907–12)
Fania Marinoff (m. 1914–64)

Carl Van Vechten (June 17, 1880 – December 21, 1964) was an American writer and artistic photographer who was a patron of the Harlem Renaissance and the literary executor of Gertrude Stein.[1]

Life and career[edit]

Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he was the youngest child of Charles and Ada Van Vechten,[2]:14 he graduated from Washington High School in 1898,[3] and later the University of Chicago[4] in 1903. In 1906, he moved to New York City, he was hired as the assistant music critic at The New York Times.[5] His interest in opera had him take a leave of absence from the paper in 1907, so as to travel to Europe to explore opera.[1]

While in England he married his long-time friend from Cedar Rapids, Anna Snyder, he returned to his job at the New York Times in 1909, where he became the first American critic of modern dance. At that time, Isadora Duncan, Anna Pavlova, and Loie Fuller were performing in New York City. The marriage to Anna Snyder ended in divorce in 1912 and he wed actress Fania Marinoff in 1914,[6] their marriage lasted until the end of his life, even while his relationships with men were an open secret.[5] Despite his marriage, Vechten was known to have romantic and sexual relationships with men, especially Mark Lutz.

Van Vechten initially met Gertrude Stein in Paris in 1913,[7] they continued corresponding for the remainder of Stein's life, and at her death she appointed Van Vechten her literary executor; he helped to bring into print her unpublished writings.[2]:306

Several books of Van Vechten's essays on various subjects such as music and literature were published between 1915 and 1920. Between 1922 and 1930 Knopf published seven novels by him, starting with Peter Whiffle: His Life and Works and ending with Parties.[8] His sexuality is most clearly reflected in his intensely homoerotic portraits of working class men.

Van Vechten was interested in black writers and artists, and knew and promoted many of the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Ethel Waters, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston and Wallace Thurman. Van Vechten's controversial novel Nigger Heaven[4] was published in 1926, his essay "Negro Blues Singers" was published in Vanity Fair in 1926. Biographer Edward White suggests Van Vechten was convinced that Negro culture was the essence of America.[2]

His older brother Ralph Van Vechten died on June 28, 1927; when Ralph's widow Fannie died in 1928, Van Vechten inherited $1 million invested in a trust fund, which was unaffected by the stock market crash of 1929 and provided financial support for Carl and Fania.[2]:242–244[9]

Van Vechten House and Studio, Manhattan, New York City

By the start of the 1930s and at age 50, Van Vechten was finished with writing and took up photography, using his apartment at 150 West 55th Street as a studio, among the many individuals he photographed were Gertrude Abercrombie, Peter Abrahams, Mercedes de Acosta, Adele Addison, Alvin Ailey, Edward Albee, Sara Allgood, Marguerite D'Alvarez, Judith Anderson, Marian Anderson, Antony Armstrong-Jones, W. H. Auden, Don Bachardy, Pearl Bailey, Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, Pierre Balmain, Tallulah Bankhead, Albert C. Barnes, Theda Bara, Harry Belafonte, Barbara Bel Geddes, Thomas Hart Benton, Leonard Bernstein, Mary McLeod Bethune, Karen Blixen, Jane Bowles, Marlon Brando, Witter Bynner, James Branch Cabell, Paul Cadmus, Erskine Caldwell, Truman Capote, Bennett Cerf, Marc Chagall, Giorgio de Chirico, Constance Collier, Katharine Cornell, Countee Cullen, Roald Dahl, Salvador Dalí, Ossie Davis, Gloria Davy, Ruby Dee, Norman Douglas, Evelyn Dove, Alfred Drake, John Van Druten, Jacob Epstein, Ella Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Fizdale, Lynn Fontanne, Ruth Ford, Ben Gazzara, John Gielgud, Dizzy Gillespie, Arthur Gold, Martha Graham, W. C. Handy, John Hersey, Al Hirschfeld, Billie Holiday, William Hopper, Lena Horne, Horst P. Horst, Zora Neale Hurston, Christopher Isherwood, Mahalia Jackson, Philip Johnson, Frida Kahlo, Eartha Kitt, Gaston Lachaise, Hugh Laing, Fernand Léger, Lotte Lenya, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Sidney Lumet, Alfred Lunt, Norman Mailer, Alicia Markova, Henri Matisse, W. Somerset Maugham, Elsa Maxwell, Carson McCullers, Colin McPhee, Gian Carlo Menotti, Henry Miller, Joan Miró, Marianne Moore, Helen Morgan, Robert Morse, Patricia Neal, Ramón Novarro, Georgia O'Keeffe, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Tyrone Power, Leontyne Price, Vincent Price, Diego Rivera, Jerome Robbins, Paul Robeson, Cesar Romero, Bertram Ross, Arthur Schwartz, George Schuyler, Beverly Sills, Gertrude Stein, James Stewart, Alfred Stieglitz, Ada "Bricktop" Smith, Bessie Smith, Paul Taylor, Prentiss Taylor, Pavel Tchelitchew, Virgil Thomson, Alice B. Toklas, Antony Tudor, Gloria Vanderbilt, Gore Vidal, Khaled Abdul-Wahab, Hugh Walpole, Evelyn Waugh, Orson Welles, Thornton Wilder, Donald Windham, Thomas Wolfe, Anna May Wong, Lin Yutang and Richard Wright.[7][10]

After the 1930s Van Vechten published little writing, though he continued writing letters to many correspondents.

Van Vechten died in 1964, at the age of 84, in New York City, his ashes were scattered over Shakespeare Gardens, Central Park, Manhattan, New York[11] He was the subject of a 1968 biography by Bruce Kellner, Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades,[12] as well as Edward White's 2014 biography, The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America.[2]

Archives and museum collections[edit]

Most of Van Vechten's personal papers are held by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. The Beinecke Library also holds a collection titled "Living Portraits: Carl Van Vechten's Color Photographs Of African Americans, 1939–1964", a collection of 1,884 color Kodachrome slides.[13]

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964)/LOC van.5a52382. Saul Mauriber, after a photograph of Salvador Dalí by Halsman, 1944

The Library of Congress has a collection of approximately 1,400 photographs, which it acquired in 1966 from Saul Mauriber (May 21, 1915 - February 12, 2003). There is also a collection of Van Vechten's photographs in the Prentiss Taylor collection in the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, and a Van Vechten collection at Fisk University, the Museum of the City of New York's collection includes 2,174 of Carl Van Vechten's photographs. Brandeis University's department of Archives & Special Collections holds 1,689 Carl Van Vechten portraits.[14] Van Vechten also donated materials to Fisk University to form the George Gershwin Memorial Collection of Music and Musical Literature.[2]:284

In 1980, concerned that Van Vechten's fragile 35 mm nitrate negatives were fast deteriorating, photographer Richard Benson, in conjunction with the Eakins Press Foundation, transformed 50 of the portraits into handmade gravure prints. The album ’O, Write My Name’: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes was completed in 1983. That year, the National Endowment for the Arts transferred the Eakins Press Foundation’s prototype albums to the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.[15]


  • Music After the Great War (1915)
  • Music and Bad Manners (1916)
  • Interpreters and Interpretations (1917)
  • The Merry-Go-Round (1918)
  • The Music of Spain (1918)
  • In the Garret (1919)
  • The Tiger in the House (1920)
  • Lords of the Housetops (1921)
  • Peter Whiffle (1922)
  • The Blind Bow-Boy (1923)
  • The Tattooed Countess (1924)
  • Red (1925)
  • Firecrackers. A Realistic Novel (1925)
  • Excavations (1926)
  • Nigger Heaven (1926)
  • Spider Boy (1928)
  • Parties (1930)
  • Feathers (1930)
  • Sacred and Profane Memories (1932)




  1. ^ a b "Portraits by Carl Van Vechten – Carl Van Vechten Biography – (American Memory from the Library of Congress)". Retrieved March 9, 2010. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f White, Edward (2014), The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN 978-0-374-20157-9 
  3. ^ "Carl Van Vechten's Camera Documented Personalities". Cedar Rapids Gazette. March 10, 1971. Retrieved November 17, 2012. 
  4. ^ a b "Carl Van Vechten Biography". December 21, 1964. Retrieved March 9, 2010. [permanent dead link]
  5. ^ a b Sanneh, Kelefa (February 17, 2014). "White Mischief: The passions of Carl Van Vechten". The New Yorker. 
  6. ^ "Carl Van Vechten's Biography on". Retrieved July 10, 2012. 
  7. ^ a b "Carl Van Vechten: Biography from". December 21, 1964. Retrieved March 9, 2010. 
  8. ^ "Carl Van Vechten Facts, information, pictures | articles about Carl Van Vechten". Retrieved June 17, 2012. 
  9. ^ Smalls, James (2006), The Homoerotic Photography of Carl Van Vechten: Public Face, Private Thoughts, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, p. 24, ISBN 1-59213-305-3 
  10. ^ "Prints & Photographs Online Catalog – Van Vechten Collection – Biography". Retrieved March 9, 2010. 
  11. ^ Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed.: 2 (Kindle Location 48447). McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition
  12. ^ Kellner, B., Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968). OCLC 292311
  13. ^ Living Portraits: Carl Van Vechten's Color Photographs Of African Americans, 1939–196. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. Retrieved July 8, 2009.
  14. ^ "Carl Van Vechten photographs". Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections Department. Brandeis University. Retrieved August 25, 2016. 
  15. ^ "Harlem Heroes: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten". Exhibitions - Smithsonian American Art Museum. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved August 25, 2016. 


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