Carl Van Vechten’s photography retrospective captures American icons of the ’20s and ’30s

Joe Louis potrait by Carl Van Vechten
Joe Louis — photo by Carl Van Vechten

The Cedar Rapids Museum of Art (CRMA) is honoring the 50th anniversary of hometown native Carl Van Vechten’s death with a retrospective of photo portraits the artist took of cultural icons during the period between the two World Wars. Carl Van Vechten: Photographer to the Stars will be on view all summer and closes Sept. 7.

Van Vechten, who was born into a wealthy Cedar Rapids family and was well educated, became part of New York City’s cultural elite at the outset of the 20th century. He enjoyed a long career as a critic, writer, photographer and benefactor of the arts until his death in 1964.

Van Vechten’s arrival in New York at the beginning of the 20th century coincided with two of America’s most significant cultural movements: the Jazz Age and the Harlem Renaissance. Both events shaped his art and life as a New York socialite. Like many of his white peers, Van Vechten frequented the Harlem nightclub scene. His experiences there provided the grist for his most notable and controversial work Nigger Heaven, a fictional account of life in Harlem—renowned as America’s black cultural capital.

Nigger Heaven quickly became a cultural phenomenon. The novel portrayed Harlem as a bustling center of intellectualism, cultural richness, political activism and unbridled sexuality. It popularized the Harlem Renaissance and made the neighborhood that birthed it a hotspot for white voyeurs like Van Vechten. Some even credit the novel for making the great Harlem cabarets, like the Cotton Club, famous.

But Nigger Heaven also split the black intellectual and activist community. Literati Langston Hughes, Wallace Thurman and Nella Larsen championed the novel. Meanwhile, historian and political activist W.E.B. DuBois and scholar Alain Leroy Locke disavowed it. DuBois disparaged Nigger Heaven “an affront to the hospitality of black folk and to the intelligence of whites.” While the NAACP came out against the novel, the National Urban League lauded it.

Marian Anderson portrait by Carl Van Vechten
Marian Anderson — photo by Carl Van Vechten

In 1932, Van Vechten’s artistic interests turned to photography when Miguel Covarrubias, a Mexican painter, caricaturist, ethnologist and art historian, introduced Van Vechten to the 35mm Leica camera. By the following year, Van Vechten was taking portraits of his friends and associates, an elite clique made up of great American icons such as Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and George Gershwin.

The significance of Carl Van Vechten’s photographic work lies in the fact that this wealthy, well-educated and well-traveled Cedar Rapids-born New York socialite came of age during the Jazz Age, characterized equally by America’s progressive politics and by Jim Crow racism. The portraits he created are a document of the figures who shaped the culture and politics of America during this era.

In addition to his writing on Harlem’s cultural significance, Van Vechten also photographed many African-American icons of the early 20th century such as writer Langston Hughes, boxing champion Joe Louis, opera singer Marian Anderson (photographed at the time the Daughters of the American Revolution banned her from singing in Washington, D.C.) and a very young Lena Horne.

Though he is best known as a chronicler of the Harlem Renaissance, Van Vechten hardly stuck to black subjects. His retrospective at the CRMA also includes portraits of stars as many barely remember them. A very young Orson Welles is seen here, photographed before his radio fame let alone his screen glory. Jimmy Stewart and Laurence Olivier also look younger than most recall them. Salvador Dali is hamming it up for the camera. Henri Matisse and Georgia O’Keeffe pose with icons of their art. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edna St. Vincent Millay are both frozen in ponderous moments. George Gershwin, Tallulah Bankhead, Marlon Brando, Grace Moor, Aaron Copland, Cesar Romero, Lillian Gish and George Cohan round out the exhibition.

In 1946, Van Vechten gave a collection of 153 photos in his body of work to the Cedar Rapids Community School District. Another 29 were given posthumously in 1996. The rest of his papers and photographs are in collections at Yale University, Fisk University, The Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institute and the Museum of the City of New York. The works donated to the CRMA for this exhibit reflect Van Vechten’s commitment to raising interest in the arts.

“[He] wanted his photos to teach and to inspire children. You have to understand that these subjects were the ultimate pop stars of their day. People knew them through movies, radio and magazines—the media of the day,” explained CRMA Director Sean Ulmer. “These were all famous people who knew they were going to have their portrait taken, so they were projecting an image to the care of another artist whom they trusted. I think they speak very articulately across many decades,” Ulmer concludes.

All photographs are black-and-white gelatin silver prints, about 10 inches by 13 inches framed. Most are shot off center with considerable shadow for effect.

Subscribe to LV Daily for community news, events, photos and more in your inbox every weekday afternoon.

Jim Duncan is a badly failed painter who has been writing about more successful artists in Des Moines Cityview, Pointblank, The Iowan, IA, DSM and for 20 years.