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Carl Van Vechten Papers

Identifier: MsC0715

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Scope and Contents

This collection is comprised mainly of 8 x 10 photographs. There are drafts for one essay on Gertrude Stein. some photocopied correspondence, pamphlet material about Van Vechten and the typescript of a stage adaptation of "The Tattooed Countess."


  • Creation: 1939-1960


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Bruce Kellner administers copyright to the photographs. Copyright status for other collection materials may be unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owner. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility and potential liability based on copyright infringement for any use rests exclusively and solely with the user. Users must properly acknowledge University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections & Archives as the source of the material. For further information, visit

Biographical / Historical

Carl Van Vechten was born on June 17, 1880, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. At an early age, he developed an interest in music and theatre that he found hard to satisfy in his hometown. He left Iowa in 1899 to attend the University of Chicago. In Chicago he was able to explore art, music, and opera. He became interested in writing and contributed to the University of Chicago Weekly. After college, Van Vechten's first job was with the Chicago American. In addition to covering a broad range of topics, he was occasionally asked to provide photographs to go along with his copy. In 1906, when Van Vechten moved to New York City, he was hired as the assistant music critic at the New York Times. His interest in opera prompted him to take a leave of absence from the Times in 1907, to examine this art form in Europe. While in England he married his long-time friend from Cedar Rapids, Ann Snyder. The marriage would end in divorce in 1912. Van Vechten returned to his job at the New York Times in 1909 and soon became the first American critic of modern dance. At that time, Isadora Duncan, Anna Pavlova, and Loie Fuller were performing in New York. In 1914, Van Vechten married actress Fania Marinoff. He left his full time newspaper job in the spring, but he continued to write, and published several collections of his essays relating to music, ballet, and cats. Peter Whiffle: His Life and Works, Van Vechten's first novel, was published in 1922. Van Vechten became very interested in promoting black artists and writers. He was an avid collector of ephemera and books pertaining to black arts and letters, and was a frequent visitor to Harlem. These experiences provided the inspiration for his controversial novel,Nigger Heaven, which was published in 1926. In the future, he would photograph many of the creative people he met in Harlem. In the early 1930s Miguel Covarrubias introduced Van Vechten to the 35 mm Leica camera. He began photographing his large circle of friends and acquaintances. His earlier career as a writer and his wife's experience as an actress provided him with access to both fledgling artists and established cultural figures of the time. Some of his subjects from this period include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes, Alfred A. Knopf, Bessie Smith, and Gertrude Stein. Van Vechten's portraits are frequently busts or half-length poses in front of bold backdrops. Dancers were usually photographed on stage. Van Vechten did his own darkroom work, but frequently used an assistant to help set up lights for portrait sittings. During World War II Van Vechten volunteered at the Stage Door Canteen. Top-notch entertainers frequently performed there for servicemen. Van Vechten's photographs have been widely exhibited and frequently used as illustrations in books and magazines. He felt very strongly that his collections of manuscripts, letters, clippings, programs, and photographs, many pertaining to creative blacks, should be available for scholarly research. With this in mind, he presented various parts of his collections to several university libraries during his lifetime. Van Vechten remained active, writing and photographing up until his death in 1961.


1.00 Linear Feet

Language of Materials



23 photographs of Doris Julian, Stephen Van Ophuigsen, Coleman Dowell, Jose Quintero and others; 16 photograph postcards including Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas; 75 photographs of celebrities (lacking no. 18); several drafts and related correspondence for Gertrude Stein: An Epilogue.

Related Materials

Andrews, Clarence. "Iowa Literary History 1971 -- 1991." Books at Iowa, April 1992.

Carney, Thomas L. and Joyce Crawford. "The Torch Press: A Preliminary History." Books at Iowa, November, 1974.

Kellner, Bruce. "Baby Woojums in Iowa." Books at Iowa, April, 1977.

Kuhl, Nancy. Extravagant Crowd : Carl Van Vechten's Portraits of Women. New Haven, Conn. : Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, 2003. Refer to External Documents to view the online exhibit.

Library of Congress, American Memory Project. Creative Americans: Portraits by Carl Van Vechten.

Sigmund, Jay. Manuscript Collection, The University of Iowa Libraries. Papers of Jay Sigmund: msc0697

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Repository Details

Part of the University of Iowa Special Collections Repository

Special Collections Department
University of Iowa Libraries
Iowa City IA 52242 IaU
319-335-5900 (Fax)