Spotlight: Photographs of Carl Van Vechten

Spotlight: Photographs of Carl Van Vechten

Chiswick Auctions are thrilled to be offering to the market a collection of 66 Carl Van Vechten photographs this autumn, in a timed online auction running until December 14th.

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Van Vechten was a man fully immersed in the cultural world of the early 20th century America. Best known for his photographic portraiture, utilising his many famous friends and acquaintances. Van Vechten championed racial equality, and the opening of doors that might have otherwise been closed to the publication of work by the black American community. As a gay man, Van Vechten was drawn to Harlem, a tolerant society of black writers and artists, he promoted many major figures of the Harlem Renaissance including Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Ethel Waters to name a few. Van Vetchen had many disagreements with Mirinoff (his second wife) over his homosexual affairs, especially with Mark Lutz, with their friendship lasting until Van Vechten's death. At Lutz's death, as per his wishes, the correspondence with Van Vechten, amounting to 10,000 letters, were destroyed. Lutz donated his collection of Van Vechten's photographs to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Beginning his career as an arts critic for the New York Times afforded Van Vechten the opportunity to become acquainted with the artists and intellectual greats of the first half of the 20th century. He also gained a certain amount of press in the gossip collumns for his eccentric personal style. As well as photography, Van Vechten also wrote novels and several volumes of literacy criticism, this opened doors for him to have access to intellectuals of the time, but it is his photography that has stood the test of time and provided a lasting legacy.

Carl Van Vechten (1880 – 1964)  ELLA FITZGERALD, 1940.

Carl Van Vechten (1880 – 1964) Ella Fitzgerald, 1940 

Estimate £300 - £500

Taking up photography in 1932, Van Vechten was lucky enough to not have to worry about the commercial viability of his work due to financial independence secured through inheritance. This gave him the opportunity to record a burgeoning era of history as it unfolded, in the way he wanted to. His work is still of significant importance for maintaining a record of this time and its most important cultural figures.


Known for throwing lavish and inclusive parties that brought together the black artists and powerful white friends together in one place, led to influencing the careers of many during the Harlem Renaissance. One such meeting between Langston Hughes (leader of the Harlem Renaissance) and Alfred A. Knopf resulted in the publication Hughes first book “The Weary Blues” with Van Vetchen writing the introduction. At a later point both theses men would be the subject of Van Vechten photography.

Carl Van Vechten (1880 – 1964)  LAURENCE OLIVIER, 1939 

Carl Van Vechten (1880 – 1964) Laurence Olivier, 1939

Estimate £400 - £600


His portraits reveal the personality of his subjects in a truly intimate and personable way, photography was his way of capturing people as they were. His subjects are sometimes seen in costume, with bold patterned backgrounds, or in dramatic poses that reflect their profession.  There are also subtler shoots that gave the opportunity for larger-than-life personas, such as Marlon Brando, to be translated to a static image. His subjects were often on the cusp of stardom when photographed, further showing Van Vechten’s place in the zenith of society and influence. Brando for example was shot during his initial stage run of a “Streetcar Named Desire” for which he would first become famous.

 Carl Van Vechten (1880 – 1964)  MARLON BRANDO, 1948

Carl Van Vechten (1880 – 1964), Marlon Brando 1948 

Estimate £600 - £800


Van Vechten’s portraits show the perfect snapshot into the cultural world of the time, as well as his influence within it. Portraits from a world as seen by the man who knew everyone there was to know.


If you have any 19th to 20th Century photographs you are interested in recieving a valuation get in touch today with Austin Farahar the Head of Photographs at Chiswick.