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Artist Jacob Lawrence, photo by CARL VAN VECHTEN

 

SOME OF THE MOST AMAZING PORTRAITS of 20th century Harlem figures were captured by Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964). A writer and photographer, Van Vechten socialized with the greats of African American arts and letters, including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. A white patron of the arts, he was a controversial figure who authored the 1926 novel “Nigger Heaven.”

At the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Van Vechten began photographing writers, musicians, politicians, athletes, and artists, and continued doing so for decades. Everyone from Hughes, Hurston, James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois, Joe Louis, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Paul Robeson, to Ralph Bunche, Katherine Dunham, Richard Wright, Bessie Smith, Lena Horne, Ossie Davis, Althea Gibson and Ella Fitzgerald, sat for Van Vechten. Visual artists Horace Pippin, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence, were also among his subjects.

A new exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) features Van Vechten’s portraits. “Harlem Heroes: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten” includes 39 images from the museum’s permanent collection presented together for the first time since they were acquired in 1983.

The 39 images by Carl Van Vechten are being presented together for the first time since they were acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in 1983.

The images came to the American Art Museum in two prototype albums following a preservation effort and publication project by the Eakins Press Foundation that was supported by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

 

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CARL VAN VECHTEN, “Zora Neale Hurston,” from the unrealized portfolio Noble Black Women: The Harlem Renaissance and After, 1935, printed 1983 (photogravure); Richard Benson (Printer). | Transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts, Photograph © Van Vechten Trust, Compilation/Publication © Eakins Press Foundation. From ‘O, Write My Name’: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes (Eakins, 2015), Courtesy Smithsonian America Art Museum

 

ACCORDING TO SAAM, “Some of the portraits capture their subjects on the cusp of success as they were full of ambition but before they became famous; others depict men and women looking back on long and varied careers, tested by the fickleness of fortune.”

Bearden served in the U.S. Army from 1942-45 in the all-black 372nd Infantry Division. Wearing his military uniform, Bearden is gazing downward and aware from the camera in the Van Vechten portrait. The image was taken in 1944, the same year his exhibition “Ten Hierographic Paintings by Sgt. Romare Bearden” was on view at The G Place Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Photographed in profile before tree providing a patterned backdrop, Van Vechten captured Pippin in 1940. It was the year of his solo show at Robert Carlen’s gallery in Philadelphia. The collector Albert C. Barnes bought two of Pippin’s paintings before the exhibition opened.

Lawrence is captured with his arms folded and a fixed stare at the camera lens. The 1941 portrait is dated the same year Lawrence completed “The Migration” series, his most critically recognized work.

“Carl Van Vechten had a relatively natural style. His portraits are posed, but they’re close-up and direct, focusing on the facial and bodily expressions of his subjects. They’re formal, but they have the familiar qualities of a snapshot,” John Jacob, the museum’s curator of photography and curator of the exhibition, told Smithsonian magazine.

Taken together, the snapshots document some of the most historic and influential figures in African American arts and culture. CT

 

Presented to coincide with the opening celebration of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture later this month, “Harlem Heroes: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten,” is on view through March 19, 2017.

 

TOP IMAGE: CARL VAN VECHTEN, “Jacob Lawrence,” from the portfolio O Write My Name: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes 1941, printed 1983 (photogravure); Richard Benson (Printer). | Transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts, Photograph © Van Vechten Trust, Compilation/Publication © Eakins Press Foundation. From ‘O, Write My Name’: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes (Eakins, 2015), Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

 

BOOKSHELF
A catalog, “Harlem Heroes: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten,” was published to coincide with the exhibition, and includes an essay by exhibition curator John Jacob and biographical information about each of Van Vechten’s subjects. Published last year, “‘O, Write My Name’: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes,” also explores Van Vechten’s Harlem portraits and includes an essay by Darryl Pinkney. An earlier version appeared in 1983. For more on the life of Van Vechten and his connections to Harlem’s African American figures, consider two titles from Emily Bernard, “Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance: A Portrait in Black and White” and “Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten.”

 

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CARL VAN VECHTEN, “Romare Bearden,” from the portfolio O Write My Name: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes 1944, printed 1983 (photogravure); Richard Benson (Printer). | Transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts, Photograph © Van Vechten Trust, Compilation/Publication © Eakins Press Foundation. From ‘O, Write My Name’: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes (Eakins, 2015), Courtesy Smithsonian America Art Museum

 

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CARL VAN VECHTEN, “Lena Horne,” from the unrealized portfolio Noble Black Women: The Harlem Renaissance and After 1941, printed 1983 (photogravure); Richard Benson (Printer). | Transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts, Photograph © Van Vechten Trust; Compilation/Publication © Eakins Press Foundation. From ‘O, Write My Name’: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes (Eakins, 2015), Courtesy Smithsonian America Art Museum

 

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CARL VAN VECHTEN, “W.E.B. DuBois,” from the portfolio O Write My Name: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes
1936, printed 1983 (photogravure); Richard Benson (Printer). | Transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts, Photograph © Van Vechten Trust; Compilation/Publication © Eakins Press Foundation. From ‘O, Write My Name’: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes (Eakins, 2015), Compilation/Publication © Eakins Press Foundation. From ‘O, Write My Name’: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes (Eakins, 2015), Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum

 

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CARL VAN VECHTEN, “Altonell Hines,” from the unrealized portfolio Noble Black Women: The Harlem Renaissance and After 1934, printed 1983 (photogravure); Richard Benson (Printer). | Transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts, Photograph © Van Vechten Trust; Compilation/Publication © Eakins Press Foundation. From ‘O, Write My Name’: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes (Eakins, 2015), Courtesy Smithsonian America Art Museum

 

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CARL VAN VECHTEN, “Paul Robeson,” from the portfolio O Write My Name: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes
1933, printed 1983 (photogravure). | Transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts, Photograph © Van Vechten Trust, Compilation/Publication © Eakins Press Foundation. From ‘O, Write My Name’: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes (Eakins, 2015), Courtesy Smithsonian America Art Museum

 

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CARL VAN VECHTEN, “Horace Pippin,” from the portfolio O Write My Name: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes 1940, printed 1983 (photogravure); Richard Benson (Printer). | Transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts, Photograph © Van Vechten Trust, Compilation/Publication © Eakins Press Foundation. From ‘O, Write My Name’: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes (Eakins, 2015), Courtesy Smithsonian America Art Museum

 

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CARL VAN VECHTEN, “Joe Louis,” from the portfolio O, Write My Name: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes
1941, printed 1983 (photogravure); Richard Benson (Printer). | Transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts
Photograph © Van Vechten Trust; Compilation/Publication © Eakins Press Foundation. From ‘O, Write My Name’: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes (Eakins, 2015), Courtesy Smithsonian America Art Museum

 

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CARL VAN VECHTEN, “Ella Fitzgerald,” from the unrealized portfolio Noble Black Women: The Harlem Renaissance and After 1940, printed 1983 (photogravure); Richard Benson (Printer). | Transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts, Photograph © Van Vechten Trust; Compilation/Publication © Eakins Press Foundation. From ‘O, Write My Name’: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes (Eakins, 2015), Courtesy Smithsonian America Art Museum

 

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CARL VAN VECHTEN, “Langston Hughes,” from the portfolio O Write My Name: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes 1939, printed, 1983 (photogravure). | Transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts, Photograph © Van Vechten Trust, Compilation/Publication © Eakins Press Foundation. From ‘O, Write My Name’: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes (Eakins, 2015), Courtesy Smithsonian America Art Museum

 

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