01. Carl Van Vechten, Allen Meadows, c. 1940
02. Carl Van Vechten, Ella Fitzgerald, 1940
03. Carl Van Vechten, Billie Holiday, 1949
04. Carl Van Vechten, Mabel Mercer, 1963
05. Carl Van Vechten, Margaret Bonds, 1956
06. Carl Van Vechten, Bertha "Chippie" Hill, 1947
07. Carl Van Vechten, Bessie Smith, 1936
08. Carl Van Vechten, Mahalia Jackson, 1962
09. Carl Van Vechten, Carol Brice, 1947
10. Carl Van Vechten, Leontyne Price in Porgy & Bess, 1953
11. Carl Van Vechten, Marian Anderson, 1940
12. Carl Van Vechten, Gloria Davy as Aida, 1958
13. Carl Van Vechten, Chester Himes, 1962
14. Carl Van Vechten, Richard Wright, 1939
15. Carl Van Vechten, James Earl Jones, 1961
16. Carl Van Vechten, Ossie Davis as Gabriel, Greener Pastures, 1951
17. Carl Van Vechten, Robert Earl Jones in Langston Hughes' play, 1938
18. Carl Van Vechten, Rex Ingram in Stevedore, 1934
19. Carl Van Vechten, Canada Lee as Bigger Thomas, 1941
20. Carl Van Vechten, Paul Robeson, 1933
21. Carl Van Vechten, Langston Hughes as Busboy at the Stage Door Canteen, 1943
22. Carl Van Vechten, William Demby, 1956
23. Carl Van Vechten, Peter Abrahams, 1955
24. Carl Van Vechten, George Lamming, 1955
25. Carl Van Vechten, W.E.B. Du Bois, 1946
26. Carl Van Vechten, Countee Cullen, 1941
27. Carl Van Vechten, Langston Hughes, 1936
28. Carl Van Vechten, Amiri Baraka, 1962
29. Carl Van Vechten, James Baldwin, 1955
30. Carl Van Vechten, Josh White, 1946
31. Carl Van Vechten, John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie, 1955
32. Carl Van Vechten, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, 1941
33. Carl Van Vechten, Harry Belafonte in Almanac, 1954
34. Carl Van Vechten, Geoffrey Holder, 1954
35. Carl Van Vechten, Cab Calloway, c. 1933
36. Carl Van Vechten, W.C. Handy, 1941
37. Carl Van Vechten, Avon Long as Sporting Life, Porgy & Bess, 1942
38. Carl Van Vechten, Ethel Waters, 1938
39. Carl Van Vechten, Ruby Dee, 1962
40. Carl Van Vechten, Pearl Bailey in St. Louis Woman, 1946
41. Carl Van Vechten, Diahann Carroll in House of Flowers, 1955
Keith de Lellis Gallery celebrates the portraiture of Carl Van Vechten (American, 1880–1964) in its summer exhibition. Van Vechten moved to New York City from Chicago in 1906 to pursue a writing career (he would become the first American critic of modern dance while contributing to the New York Times) before dedicating himself to photography.
Van Vechten had a lifelong interest in African American culture and was committed to promoting black artists. In the early 1920s, Van Vechten sought out NAACP leader Walter White, who would introduce him to his colleague James Weldon Johnson. Johnson in turn facilitated introductions between Van Vechten and countless key figures in the rising Harlem Renaissance. Van Vechten became a familiar sight in predominantly black spaces, attending formal NAACP banquets as well as Harlem nightclubs and speakeasies.
The artist wrote a number of articles championing black writers and performers that would be published in popular publications such as Vanity Fair and the New York Herald Tribune. Upon Van Vechten’s influence, Langston Hughes was taken on by Van Vechten’s publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, to publish his first set of poems in 1926. Rudoph P. Byrd wrote, “In an age of rising nativism, Van Vechten was one of a small group of European American intellectuals who recognized the uniqueness, depth, and far-reaching significance of African American culture” (Generations in Black & White, University of Georgia Press, 1993).
While he initially wrote in response to his experiences with New York’s black community, he later turned to photography to elevate both established and emerging artists. He assembled a home studio and darkroom in his West 55th Street apartment and invited sitters of all sorts “to show young people of all races how many distinguished Negroes there are in the world” (Bruce Kellner, Keep A-Inchin Along, Praeger, 1979). His subjects included Pearl Bailey, Amiri Baraka, Ruby Dee, Billie Holiday, Langston Hughes, Leontyne Price, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and many more. Van Vechten’s commitment to documenting remarkable black figures lasted far beyond the period known as the Harlem Renaissance, and in fact continued until his death in 1964.
The personalities of Van Vechten’s subjects are effectively communicated through their pose and expression combined with the photographer’s nuanced composition, backgrounds, and lighting. These dramatic portraits convey in equal measure the subject’s dedication to their craft and Van Vechten’s reverence for the artist. Some lively (joyous Bill “Bojangles” Robinson dancing across the frame), others quiet (a contemplative Bessie Smith with downcast eyes), the photographs capture a range of emotions, aesthetics, and talents.
Van Vechten’s photographs were exhibited at the Museum of the City of New York and the Philadelphia Museum of Art during his lifetime. He established collections at a number of universities and museums, including Yale University, Howard University, the Museum of Modern Art, the New York Public Library, Princeton University, and more.