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Beyond the Harlem Renaissance

African American Portraits by Carl Van Vechten

01. Carl Van Vechten, Allen Meadows, c. 1940. Waist-up portrait of the figure, shirtless, in profile, holding a traditional mask to face him so they are nose-to-nose.

01. Carl Van Vechten, Allen Meadows, c. 1940

02. Carl Van Vechten, Ella Fitzgerald, 1940. Waist-up portrait of the singer, eyes downcast and arms crossed.

02. Carl Van Vechten, Ella Fitzgerald, 1940

03. Carl Van Vechten, Billie Holiday, 1949. Seated portrait of the singer, eyes cast up, one hand raised, and mouth open in song.

03. Carl Van Vechten, Billie Holiday, 1949

04. Carl Van Vechten, Mabel Mercer, 1963. Seated portrait with eyes cast toward the right of the frame.

04. Carl Van Vechten, Mabel Mercer, 1963

05. Carl Van Vechten, Margaret Bonds, ​1956. Seated portrait in profile, facing the right of the frame.

05. Carl Van Vechten, Margaret Bonds, 1956

06. Carl Van Vechten, Bertha "Chippie" Hill, ​1947. Bust-length portrait with the subject's head in profile, facing the right of the frame.

06. Carl Van Vechten, Bertha "Chippie" Hill, 1947

07. Carl Van Vechten, Bessie Smith, 1936. Bust-length portrait of the subject in silk with eyes downcast.

07. Carl Van Vechten, Bessie Smith, 1936

08. Carl Van Vechten, Mahalia Jackson, 1962. Bust-length portrait with subject smiling towards the upper left of the frame with hands clasped at her chest.

08. Carl Van Vechten, Mahalia Jackson, 1962

09. Carl Van Vechten, Carol Brice, ​1947. Subject stands, smiling towards the left of the frame, holding a large bouquet.

09. Carl Van Vechten, Carol Brice, 1947

10. Carl Van Vechten, Leontyne Price in Porgy & Bess, 1953. Subject poses against a curtain with hands on hips, looking to the camera.

10. Carl Van Vechten, Leontyne Price in Porgy & Bess, 1953

11. Carl Van Vechten, Marian Anderson, 1940. Bust-length portrait with subject in an off-shoulder floral gown in partial profile facing the right of the frame.

11. Carl Van Vechten, Marian Anderson, 1940

12. Carl Van Vechten, Gloria Davy as Aida, 1958. Full-body portrait with subject in an asymmetrical gown against a textured curtain backdrop, eyes cast up and mouth open in song.

12. Carl Van Vechten, Gloria Davy as Aida, 1958

13. Carl Van Vechten, Chester Himes, ​1962. Seated portrait with subject's head facing the left of the frame, arms crossed in front of him.

13. Carl Van Vechten, Chester Himes, 1962

14. Carl Van Vechten, Richard Wright, ​1939. Seated portrait of subject in jacket and tie, looking to the left of the frame.

14. Carl Van Vechten, Richard Wright, 1939

15. Carl Van Vechten, James Earl Jones, ​1961. Seated, waist-length portrait with subject looking towards the left of the frame with his right arm resting on the back of the chair.

15. Carl Van Vechten, James Earl Jones, 1961

16. Carl Van Vechten, Ossie Davis as Gabriel, Greener Pastures, 1951. Bust-length portrait of subject with hands raised in front of his chest, eyes cast up and to the left.

16. Carl Van Vechten, Ossie Davis as Gabriel, Greener Pastures, 1951

17. Carl Van Vechten, Robert Earl Jones in Langston Hughes' play, 1938. Seated portrait with subject smiling up and to the left of the frame, one hand in a fist in front of him.

17. Carl Van Vechten, Robert Earl Jones in Langston Hughes' play, 1938

18. Carl Van Vechten, Rex Ingram in Stevedore, 1934. Shirtless figure in semi-profile smiling up and to the right of the frame with fists held up in front of his chest.

18. Carl Van Vechten, Rex Ingram in Stevedore, 1934

19. Carl Van Vechten, Canada Lee as Bigger Thomas, 1941. Bust-length portrait with subject looking to the right of the frame with brows furrowed, one fist at his chest.

19. Carl Van Vechten, Canada Lee as Bigger Thomas, 1941

20. Carl Van Vechten, Paul Robeson, 1933. Subject smiles to the camera with torso facing left, a reflective material hangs to the left of the frame.

20. Carl Van Vechten, Paul Robeson, 1933

21. Carl Van Vechten, Langston Hughes as Busboy at the Stage Door Canteen, ​1943. Two men and one woman in lively discussion gathered around a small table covered in cartons, cans, cigarettes, etc. A man in a white apron stands behind them

21. Carl Van Vechten, Langston Hughes as Busboy at the Stage Door Canteen, 1943

22. Carl Van Vechten, William Demby, 1956. Seated portrait of subject seated backwards with arms folded on the back of a wooden chair.

22. Carl Van Vechten, William Demby, 1956

23. Carl Van Vechten, Peter Abrahams, ​1955. Seated portrait with subject at 45 degrees towards the left of the frame, arms crossed over the back of a wooden chair.

23. Carl Van Vechten, Peter Abrahams, 1955

24. Carl Van Vechten, George Lamming, 1955. Bust-length portrait with subject at 45 degrees towards the left of the frame, looking intensely to the camera.

24. Carl Van Vechten, George Lamming, 1955

25. Carl Van Vechten, W.E.B. Du Bois, 1946. Bust-length portrait of subject smiling to the camera in a jacket and tie.

25. Carl Van Vechten, W.E.B. Du Bois, 1946

26. Carl Van Vechten, Countee Cullen, 1941. Waist-length portrait of subject in a three-piece suit, leaning against a tree with arms behind his back.

26. Carl Van Vechten, Countee Cullen, 1941

27. Carl Van Vechten, Langston Hughes, 1936. Bust-length portrait with subject in suit and tie against a collaged newspaper backdrop, looking slightly to the left of the frame.

27. Carl Van Vechten, Langston Hughes, 1936

28. Carl Van Vechten, Amiri Baraka, 1962. Bust-length portrait of subject looking to camera against a cloth backdrop with chin resting on one hand.

28. Carl Van Vechten, Amiri Baraka, 1962

29. Carl Van Vechten, James Baldwin, ​1955. Seated portrait against a draping fabric backdrop with subject facing the left of the frame.

29. Carl Van Vechten, James Baldwin, 1955

30. Carl Van Vechten, Josh White, ​1946. Seated portrait with subject holding a guitar in his lap with on hand on the neck and the other raised in front of him.

30. Carl Van Vechten, Josh White, 1946

31. Carl Van Vechten, John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie, 1955. Full-body seated portrait with subject glancing to the lower right of the frame with body facing the right, arms crossed in front of his chest.

31. Carl Van Vechten, John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie, 1955

32. Carl Van Vechten, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, 1941. Full-body portrait with subject pointing to his outstretched right leg with toe touching the floor.

32. Carl Van Vechten, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, 1941

33. Carl Van Vechten, Harry Belafonte in Almanac, 1954. Seated portrait with subject facing the right holding a ceramic chicken.

33. Carl Van Vechten, Harry Belafonte in Almanac, 1954

34. Carl Van Vechten, Geoffrey Holder, 1954. Bust length portrait with bare-chested subject at an angle from the lower left to upper right of the frame, eyes cast to the lower right and one hand held up in front of his chest.

34. Carl Van Vechten, Geoffrey Holder, 1954

35. Carl Van Vechten, Cab Calloway, ​c. 1933. Bust-length portrait with subject smiling, eyes cast up to the left, against a backdrop featuring dancing figures and music notes.

35. Carl Van Vechten, Cab Calloway, c. 1933

36. Carl Van Vechten, W.C. Handy, 1941. Three-quarter length portrait of subject standing on the left of the frame playing a muted trumpet.

36. Carl Van Vechten, W.C. Handy, 1941

37. Carl Van Vechten, Avon Long as Sporting Life, Porgy & Bess, 1942. Subject in a seated pose with legs crossed and hands on knee, looking down and to the right.

37. Carl Van Vechten, Avon Long as Sporting Life, Porgy & Bess, 1942

38. Carl Van Vechten, Ethel Waters, ​1938. Bust-length portrait with subject looking to the left of the frame against a backdrop of concentric wavy rectangles.

38. Carl Van Vechten, Ethel Waters, 1938

39. Carl Van Vechten, Ruby Dee, 1962. Seated portrait with subject smiling to the camera, adjusting a bracelet on her wrist. Backdrop features draping fabric and masks.

39. Carl Van Vechten, Ruby Dee, 1962

40. Carl Van Vechten, Pearl Bailey in St. Louis Woman, 1946. Seated portrait with subject in a striped dress and apron looking to the lower left of the frame, hands gesturing in front of her.

40. Carl Van Vechten, Pearl Bailey in St. Louis Woman, 1946

41. Carl Van Vechten, Diahann Carroll in House of Flowers, 1955. Three quarter-length portrait with subject in lace gown, looking to the right of the frame with hands on hips.

41. Carl Van Vechten, Diahann Carroll in House of Flowers, 1955

Press Release

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.