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Carl Van Vechten: Photographer to the Stars

September 20, 2014 - January 4, 2015

Carl Van Vechten, Canada Lee, 1941. Gelatin silver print, 13 1/2 x 10 1/2 in. Collection of the Cedar Rapids Community School District, © Carl Van Vechten Trust on loan to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. L2008.429
Born in Cedar Rapids, Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964) developed an interest in music and theater at an early age. He left Iowa in 1899 to attend the University of Chicago, where he explored art, music, and opera. He became interested in writing and contributed to the University of Chicago Weekly. When he moved to New York in 1906, he was hired as the assistant music critic at The New York Times. He eventually became the first American critic of modern dance at The New York Times, in a period when Isadora Duncan, Anna Pavlova, and Loie Fuller were performing in New York. He left his newspaper position in 1914 but continued to write, publishing several collections of essays relating to music and ballet. His first novel, Peter Whiffle, was published in 1922.

In the early 1930s, after being introduced to the 35mm Leica camera, Van Vechten began to photograph his large circle of famous friends and acquaintances, including such subjects as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Alfred A. Knopf, Bessie Smith, and Gertrude Stein, usually bust- or half-length poses in front of backdrops. He is perhaps best known for his many portraits of the creative forces of the Harlem Renaissance. Van Vechten remained active, writing and photographing, until his death in 1964.

In 1946, the Cedar Rapids Community School District received a large gift of 153 photographs from the artist and then in 1996, this original gift was augmented by another 29 photographs from the Van Vechten estate, all of which have been housed at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art since the flood of 2008. This year, on the 50th anniversary of his death in 1964, we celebrate the accomplishments of this noted writer and photographer. Drawing from the extensive collection of Van Vechten photographs in the possession of the Cedar Rapids Community School District, the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art will mount two successive exhibitions of his work, thereby sharing more of the collection than a single exhibition would allow.

These exhibitions are made possible in part by a Program Fund Grant from the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation.


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