Prince of Portraits

“Lena Horne,” Sept. 15, 1941. 9 11/16 by 8 inches. One of America’s most beloved chanteuses, Horne won a Tony award and several Grammys. She also bravely promoted civil rights.

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hat famously urbane American artist would be hardest to imagine springing out of 19th-century Iowa? Place your bets on Carl Van Vechten. Born in Cedar Rapids in 1880, and reared among cushions, culture and respectability, the restless adolescent longed for racier surroundings. As he once confided to a woman friend, “I’m so damned bored with this town, I’d like to put on a bath towel and run through the streets naked.” His mischievous friend brought him a bath towel, but Van Vechten wisely chose not to act on that impulse.

Decades later, his restlessness and passions led him to photography, where he shot portraits of many of the famous game-changers of his day, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. Some of his photos ended up back in Cedar Rapids, where today they can be viewed by appointment at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

Van Vechten didn’t begin his career as a photographer, though. With high school behind him, he fled to the University of Chicago in 1899. There he haunted the city’s theaters, concert halls and nightclubs. After graduation, seeking even more dazzling marquees, he left for New York City in 1906, where he landed a position as assistant music critic at The New York Times. Then, packing up his wife, Anna (they’d been
young sweethearts in Iowa), Van Vechten lit off for Europe. “To me,” he observed, “discovery is nine-tenths of the interest in life.”

Back in New York, fueled by foreign sights and sounds, he divorced Anna and married a Ukrainian-born Broadway and silent-movie actress named Fania Marinoff. Gregarious, curious and sharp-tongued, Van Vechten soon widened his circle of friends and expanded the scope of his newspaper reviews. He became, for example, a pioneering critic of modern dance. He also produced stylish novels, chronicling the Jazz Age and defining its brittle, glamorous characters.

In 1932, at age 52, Van Vechten focused his still-burning energy on photography. Having fallen in love with a friend’s new small, easy-to-handle Leica camera, he committed himself to documenting the dozens of creative lions and lionesses he’d so ardently pursued. (A windfall inheritance supported this midlife passion.) During the next three decades, Van Vechten snapped more than 15,000 photographs.

In addition to Fitzgerald and Stein, Aaron Copland, Orson Welles, Marlon Brando, George Gershwin and Eugene O’Neill appear among Van Vechten’s history-making subjects. But even more important, he recorded the faces of the black geniuses who won recognition in mid-century America. Novelist James Baldwin, with his mesmerizing, hooded eyes and international critical acclaim; actor and activist Paul Robeson, who shattered a glass ceiling with his performance as Othello; and the legendary jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald all sat for portraits. (Now-invaluable Van Vechten images of six equally iconic black artists accompany this story.)

Van Vechten generally posed sitters in his apartment studio, often using patterned backdrops, which he believed evoked aspects of his subjects’ inner lives. He developed his own prints in an adjoining darkroom. According to his biographer, Bruce Keller, Van Vechten’s portraits constitute “the single most integrated photographic vision of American arts and letters produced in his era.”

In 1946, Van Vechten gave 182 photographs to the Franklin School in Cedar Rapids. As the Cedar Rapids Gazette described this bequest, “There are no two photographs alike. Far from being a routine set of famous faces, it is an exciting collection of individualities, caught by an equally individual photographer.”

Van Vechten’s images still belong to the Cedar Rapids Community School District, though they’re housed at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. As part of a new administration building, the district plans to build a public gallery space devoted to Van Vechten’s stirring portraits.

Written by Loulou Kane

From top: “Claude McKay,” July 25, 1941. 10 by 7 7/8 inches. Considered essential to the rise of the Harlem Renaissance, the Jamaica-born McKay authored novels, poems and memoirs.  “Katherine Dunham,” May 10, 1940. 13 7/8 by 10 7/8 inches. Proclaimed “the matriarch and queen mother of black dance,” Dunham formed her own successful troupe and toured the globe.“Horace Pippin,” Feb. 4, 1940. 13 7/8 by 10 7/8 inches. A self-taught painter, Pippin was championed by the Museum of Modern Art during the 1930s. “Zora Neale Hurston,” 1935. 14 by 11 inches. Hurston wrote the famous novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and also gained acclaim as an anthropologist and a folklorist.  “Robert Earl Jones,” June 23, 1938. 14 by 11 inches. A boxer turned actor, Jones perfectly fit his role as Joe Louis in the Broadway play “Spirit of Youth.”

All above photographs by Carl Van Vechten, gelatin silver prints. Collection of the Cedar Rapids Community School District, on loan to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.



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