June 17, 2017

Carl Van Vechten & the Harlem Renaissance

Harlem Renaissance

Today, June 17, is the birthday of photographer Carl Van Vechten. Born in 1880, he was an American writer and artistic photographer who was a patron of the Harlem Renaissance.    

Carl Van Vechten Self-portrait (1934) 

He was the literary executor of Gertrude Stein. Van Vechten met Gertrude Stein in Paris in 1913. 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of Stein's life, and at her death she appointed Van Vechten her literary executor; he helped to bring into print her unpublished writings.   

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 was published in 1926.

Nigger Heaven - 1926

His essay Negro Blues Singers was published in Vanity Fair in 1926 (link below). Biographer Edward White suggests Van Vechten was convinced that Negro culture was the essence of America.      

The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural, social, and artistic movement that took place in Harlem, New York, spanning from about 1918 until the mid-1930s. During the time, it was known as the "New Negro Movement", named after the 1925 anthology by Alain Locke. The Movement also included the new African-American cultural expressions across the urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest United States affected by the African-American Great Migration, of which Harlem was the largest. The Harlem Renaissance was considered to be a rebirth of African-American arts. Though it was centered in the Harlem neighborhood of the borough of Manhattan in New York City, many francophone black writers from African and Caribbean colonies who lived in Paris were also influenced by the Harlem Renaissance.

Many of its ideas lived on much longer. The zenith of this "flowering of Negro literature", as James Weldon Johnson preferred to call the Harlem Renaissance, took place between 1924 (when Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life hosted a party for black writers where many white publishers were in attendance) and 1929 (the year of the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression). 

By the start of the 1930s and at age 50, Van Vechten took up photography, using his apartment at 150 West 55th Street as a studio. 

Billie Holiday - 1949 

Dizzy Gillespie - 1955 

Feral Benga - 1937  

Gloria Davy - 1958 


Pearl Bailey - July 5, 1946

W. C. Handy - 1941 

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.   
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 City.         

Net links:  
Negro “Blues” Singers by Carl Van Vechten        
Carl Van Vechten Gallery        

Styrous® ~ Saturday, June 17, 2017      




  1. I allways learn new things from your interesting posts. Thank you.

  2. I am so grateful to hear this, Ana. Thank you.


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