The Portraits of Carl Van Vechten
Carl Van Vechten was a polymath unparalleled in the history of American arts. Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1880, he was, at various times, the nation’s most incisive and far-seeing arts critic who promoted names as diverse as Gertrude Stein and Bessie Smith long before it was popular to do so; a notorious socialite who held legendary parties; a de facto publicist for great forgotten names including Herman Melville; a best-selling author of scandalous novels; and one of the most important champions of African-American literature, vital in advancing the careers of Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, and Chester Himes.
In the early 1930s he fixed upon another reinvention when he took up photography, a pastime that swiftly became an all-consuming passion. Turning unused space in his sumptuous midtown Manhattan apartment into a makeshift studio, Van Vechten, for the last thirty years of his life, shot thousands of portraits of brilliant and beautiful cultural figures who had helped define the first half of the American Century, from Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to Truman Capote.
Van Vechten was transfixed by celebrity. As a small boy he collected autographs and pasted photos of actresses into his scrapbooks; as an adult he dropped names shamelessly, and made lists in his daybooks of the famous people he met at parties. To Van Vechten all publicity was self-publicity, and he took great vicarious pleasure in transforming an obscure artist into an international star, tying himself to their public image in the process. Often his photographs were an emphatic expression of that same impulse; an opportunity to immortalize his connection to the exceptional and celebrated. These fifteen photographs give a flavor of Van Vechten the fan and the impresario, as well as sketch out the spectacular trajectory of his life which stretched from the Gilded Age to the foothills of the cultural revolutions of the 1960s.
1) Theodore Dreiser
When Van Vechten arrived in New York in 1906 it was the writer and editor Dreiser who gave him his big break, commissioning him to write a magazine article about Richard Strauss’s highly controversial new opera, Salome – the perfect assignment for a daring young man who wanted to be seen and have the world see him. Although Van Vechten always maintained that this was his first contact with Dreiser, in the very earliest years of the twentieth century both men frequented the Everleigh Club, an astonishingly lavish brothel in Chicago’s infamous red-light district.
2) Mabel Dodge (later Dodge Luhan)
The society hostess and arts patron Mabel Dodge set Van Vechten’s life on a new path when they met at a mutual friend’s dinner party in 1912. It was at her bohemian Fifth Avenue salon where Van Vechten met an array of New York’s most noteworthy people—such as the political radical Emma Goldman and the artist Charles Demuth—and where he learned the skills of hosting parties, which became a key part of his life in later years. But Dodge also taught him the trick of promoting an under-appreciated artist as a means of boosting one’s own profile, as she did in the early careers of figures such as Gertrude Stein and the poet John Reed. Over several decades of a combustible, on-off friendship they maintained a keen rivalry as loudhailers for various artistic causes.
3) Henri Matisse
In 1913, the Armory Show exhibition hit New York with incendiary force, displaying works by modern artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Duchamp, and Henri Matisse for the first time in the United States. “Art Show Open to Freaks” was the headline of the Chicago Daily Tribune’s review of the exhibition, reflecting the tone of much of the coverage in the popular press which hovered somewhere between amused, enraged and discombobulated. Van Vechten, predictably, loved the exhibition—but as much for the controversy it caused as for the art it displayed. “Everybody went and everybody talked about it,” he remembered years later. “Street-car conductors asked for your opinion of the Nude Descending a Staircase, as they asked you for your nickel.”
4) Gertrude Stein
Through Mabel Dodge, Van Vechten met Gertrude Stein at her Paris home in 1913. For the next 33 years Van Vechten framed himself as Stein’s greatest American champion. He arranged for the publication of her book Tender Buttons; wrote articles about her in newspapers and magazines; and helped promote her opera Four Saints in Three Acts, as well as her resoundingly successful tour of the U.S. in 1934-35. This famous shot was taken during that tour and is his deliberate attempt to position Stein as a totem of a modern American culture that he had helped foster.
5) Alfred and Blanche Knopf
When the twenty-something whiz-kids Alfred and Blanche Knopf opened their publishing house in 1915, Van Vechten was their third signing, joining H. L. Mencken and the novelist Joseph Hergesheimer. Van Vechten’s first efforts were radical works of modernist music criticism, but the Knopfs also published his series of best-selling novels in the 1920s which lifted Van Vechten into the mainstream. Although behind the camera, Van Vechten has ensured that he is still in shot: the posters in the background are a caricature of Van Vechten and the front cover designs of two of his novels.
6) George Gershwin
When the First World War ended and the Jazz Age swung into gear, Van Vechten struck up a friendship with a pre-Rhapsody in Blue George Gershwin. Van Vechten championed his young friend in Vanity Fair, and Gershwin repaid the favor by acting as sort of de facto house pianist at Van Vechten’s parties, which were fixtures of the New York smart set’s social calendar.
7) F. Scott Fitzgerald
In New York and Hollywood, Van Vechten was an enthusiastic drinking partner of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald during the mid-1920s, a time when alcohol consumption was becoming a serious problem for all three of them—although in later life Van Vechten dismissed the idea that his drinking was ever of the same magnitude as theirs. This photograph, taken in 1937, was the last time Van Vechten and Scott ever met.
8) Langston Hughes
In the early 1920s, Van Vechten began to socialize in Harlem at the start of the so-called Harlem Renaissance and developed an interest in African-American arts and culture that spilled over into an obsession. It was at a literary function in Harlem that Van Vechten met the 23-year-old Langston Hughes in February 1924. Van Vechten immediately arranged for Hughes’s first publishing deal with Alfred A. Knopf and the two became lifelong friends, although critics often incorrectly suspected that Van Vechten was some corrupting Svengali figure, influencing Hughes to write about sex, jazz and drink rather than more high-minded subjects.
9) W.E.B. Du Bois
Van Vechten’s ardor for Harlem resulted in a novel set in the neighborhood, entitled Nigger Heaven. That title, along with the book’s depiction of the underbelly of Harlem life, caused an immense controversy. While some of his black friends—most notably Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson and Walter White of the NAACP—stridently defended Van Vechten’s novel as a brave and honest work, other African-Americans tore into him ferociously. Leading the charge was W.E.B. Du Bois, author of the seminal The Souls of Black Folk, who accused Van Vechten of peddling “hate, hurt, gin and sadism.” By the time that Du Bois sat for this photograph in 1946, he was just about convinced that Van Vechten had always intended to be an ally in the struggle against racial prejudice.
10) James Weldon Johnson
Van Vechten befriended the writer, diplomat and musician James Weldon Johnson in Harlem in the 1920s. Van Vechten was astonished by Johnson’s talents and always maintained that if he had been born white, Johnson could have been presidential material. Johnson’s death in 1938 prompted Van Vechten to establish a lasting tribute to his friend’s memory. The result was the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale University’s Beinecke Library, a vast archive of black American arts and culture. Van Vechten spent over two decades soliciting material—letters, manuscripts, sketches, sculptures, records—from African-American artists, and photographing just about any black cultural figures he could convince to pay a visit to his studio.
11) Joe Louis
Prizefighting was one of Van Vechten’s more surprising interests. It was the sport’s raw physicality—a brutal counterpoint to his beloved ballet—and grand spectacle that attracted him. In Joe Louis, Van Vechten also saw a fascinating character, one much more complex and arresting than Louis’s thuggish public persona would suggest.
12) Marlon Brando
Marlon Brando and Van Vechten were never close, and they probably never met outside the studio. When this photograph was taken, Brando was causing a sensation on Broadway with his performance in A Streetcar Named Desire. In this series of photographs Van Vechten has Brando pose in a series of somewhat suggestive poses, turning Stanley Kowalski into one of Van Vechten’s many homoerotic subjects.
13) Carson McCullers
During his later years, Van Vechten took a tranche of young American artists under his wing, and never lost his passion for unearthing new talent, nor his desire to be seen doing so. Carson McCullers was one of those who found in Van Vechten a sage, grandfatherly advocate.
14) Harry Belafonte
In a 1964 interview, an elderly Van Vechten bemoaned the fact that the NAACP and its new breed of civil rights activists no longer afforded him the attention that he used to receive from the organization in the 1930s and ’40s. Shooting figures like Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, and LeRoi Jones was one method of tying himself to the younger generation – but he was stung by Sidney Poitier’s refusal to sit for him in the late ’50s.
15) Carl Van Vechten
The subject Van Vechten shot more than any other over the years was undoubtedly himself—and, as he admitted to friends, he never grew tired of admiring the results. In many of the shots he adopted the same pose: mouth firmly closed to hide his large, misshapen teeth, the faint hint of a smile on his lips, fixing his gaze straight at the viewer. Playful with a hint of menace—just like the man himself.
Edward White studied European and American history at Mansfield College, Oxford, and Goldsmiths College, London. Since 2005 he has worked in the British television industry, including two years at the BBC, devising programs in its arts and history departments. He is a contributor to The Times Literary Supplement. The Tastemaker is his first book.