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[Detail] Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald by Carl Van Vechten

Collection Overview

Creative Americans: Portraits by Van Vechten, 1932-1964, features portraits of famous literary figures, artists, and celebrities, many of whom were prominent in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. The collection includes portraits of Salvador Dali, William Faulkner, Dizzy Gillespie, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Mahalia Jackson, Leontyne Price, Man Ray, and hundreds of others.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection, although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • The Great Depression and World War II, 1929-1945
  • Postwar United States, 1945-early 1970s

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection.

The photographs in this collection are indexed by the name of the person photographed. For a list of people pictured in the collection, go to the Creative Americans: Portraits by Van Vechten Subject Index.

For help searching the collection for photographs of writers, artists, musicians, and other occupations, use the Van Vechten Collection Occupation Index.

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.


Creative Americans: Portraits by Van Vechten, 1932-1964 includes over one thousand portraits of actors, dancers, writers, painters, and other creative individuals, as well as a few pictures of landscapes and Americana. A writer, reporter, and critic in New York City, Carl Van Vechten photographed many famous people, though the majority of his portraits are of lesser-known individuals. Through this collection, students can study various social, cultural, and artistic movements that generated in the first decades of the 1900s and developed throughout the century. With some historical context, students can see how these movements were made possible by the creation of loci of culture and creativity in cities such as Chicago and New York, and how this creation was brought about, in part, by the migration of African Americans from the South to northern cities in the first two decades of the twentieth century.


In the 1920s, the urban middle class broke with traditional values by embracing a materialism and consumerism afforded by a rejuvenated economy and fuelled by mass media and advertising. Similar change was reflected in the arts in the modernist movement, in which painters, sculptors, dancers, and musicians broke with traditional subject matter, values, and styles. This collection provides an introduction to important modernists and allows students to witness for themselves some of the fundamental characteristics of this movement.

Having its colonial roots across the Atlantic, America long took its cues from Europe, considered the authority on culture, ideas, and the arts. At the close of the first World War, many American artists, doubting America's ability to make any substantial cultural contribution, sought a richer cultural atmosphere in Europe. A decade later, many of these expatriates returned and reflected European influences in modern works. Students can see the role of this international exchange for themselves in Van Vechten's many portraits of foreign artists such as Salvador Dali, Marc Chagall, Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miro, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Henri Matisse. Search these artists' names to locate their portraits.

Students can browse the lists of Artists, Authors, Photographers, Poets, and Sculptors, in the Occupational Index for portraits of other champions of modernism, including Americans such as Georgia O'Keefe, Alexander Calder, and Gertrude Stein. Students may also get a feel for the importance of New York city as a cultural center in the early twentieth century and as the capital of modernism in America, by appreciating that Van Vechten's location there made these many portraits possible. How many of Van Vechten's photographs were taken in New York? Where else do his pictures come from? Students may learn more about the changes in modernism through time and the different forms it took within various disciplines by researching a few of the artists featured in this collection.

  • What can you find out about Gertrude Stein to help you understand the meaning of Van Vechten's use of an American flag in his portrait of this famous Modernist? Is it ironic or sincere?

Traditionalism and Americana

The inter-war decades also saw a simultaneous revival of traditionalism, expressed in nostalgia for a past quickly being eclipsed by the new technologies and values of modern America. While modernists were fleeing America for a more soulful Europe, traditionalists were identifying and embracing the "strictly American" in historical landmarks, regional traditions, vernacular architecture, and folk art. Students can view Van Vechten's photographs listed in the Subject Index under headings from Antiques, Architectural elements, Barns, Fences, and Fountains, to Piers and Wharves, Windmills, Yard ornaments, and United States, and determine whether they reflect this modern incarnation of traditionalism.

  • What do these images have in common?
  • What do they suggest about Van Vechten's interests?
  • How do they affect the way you view the portraits in this collection? What do the portraits have in common with these other pictures?

African-American Leadership and Civil Rights

At the turn of twentieth century, many African Americans migrated to northern cities such as Chicago and New York to escape the racial prejudice that predominated in the South, depriving them of political power despite the guarantees of the Fifteenth Amendment. Even in the North, however, prejudice confined them to the lowest-paying jobs and poor housing conditions. Much remained to be done to establish racial equality, and many individuals would rise to the occasion as Civil Rights leaders throughout the century. One of the first of these leaders was W.E.B Du Bois, who established the NAACP in order to secure African Americans' constitutional rights through the courts. Students can refer to the collection's Occupational Index for other African-American Leaders and search American Memory and the Web for more information about these and other leaders, such as Booker T. Washington. Some questions that students might want to consider include the following:

  • In what ways did each leader make inroads toward equality for African Americans?
  • How many different methods for achieving equality can you identify?
  • Are some of these methods in tension with each other? How?
  • Which methods seem the best? Why?
  • Why are these individuals considered leaders?

One form of prejudice against African Americans has been their exclusion from the professional world. With this background, students can appreciate the significance of the increased participation and success of African Americans in the Performing Arts, documented in this collection. In addition to the more celebrated African-American performing artists including Pearl Bailey, Marian Anderson, Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Sammy Davis Jr., Paul Robeson, and Bill Robinson, students can browse the Subject Index for countless portraits of lesser-known performers. Ask your students to include these individuals in their consideration of African-American leadership as outlined above and answer the following questions:

  • How do the Performing Arts affect social conditions?
  • What is the relationship between social and political equality?
  • Why do you think African Americans were able to make inroads in this profession?
  • In what other professional fields were African Americans earliest able to participate?

You may also want to refer students to "Baseball, the Color Line, and Jackie Robinson, 1860s-1960s" and "The Play that Electrified Harlem" for an article about the Federal Theater Project's "Negro Unit."

Performing Arts

The majority of the collection's photographs were taken of actors, actresses, and dancers, often captured in costume, on stage, and in character. By browsing these portraits, taken from the early thirties to the early sixties, students may get a feel for what the performing arts were like during these decades.

The Occupational Index sites three dancers, but there are countless others to be found by browsing the Subject Index. Included among these is tap dancer, Bill Robinson, and Martha Graham, one of the most famous innovators of modern American dance. Have students search Graham, examine these and other photographs of modern dancers, and write a paragraph explaining what inferences they can make about modern dance based on the appearance of these dancers' movements, costumes, and makeup. It may be easier for students to glean meaning from these images by comparing them to images of classical nineteenth century ballet, the traditions of which modern dance eschewed.

By examining photographs of actors and actresses, and by comparing them to contemporary images, students may draw inferences about film, drama, and the performing arts community in the first half of the twentieth century. As with dancers, students will want to use both the Occupational Index and the Subject Index to locate these images. Some possible questions to use in analysis include the following:

  • How are the costumes, clothing, makeup, and set design in these pictures different from those of drama and movies today? What has remained the same?
  • What do you think these portraits were used for? Who do you think wanted these pictures taken, Van Vecthen or his subjects? What might a performer want her portrait to look like?
  • Where do you see pictures and portraits of performers today? Do they remind you of the portraits in this collection? How would you account for the similarities and differences?
  • Some portraits' captions include performance titles. What can you find out about these performances by searching their titles on the web? (Other titles may be identified by searching names of film stars from the collection, such as Jimmy Stewart, Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Harry Belafonte, and Orson Welles).
  • How many of these titles belong to plays? How many are movies? Who wrote them? Who starred in them? What are they about? Which ones were popular?
  • What does this suggest about the kinds of subjects and themes that audiences and producers were interested in during the Thirties, Forties, Fifties, and Sixties?

Literature in the Twenties: the "Lost Generation"

The 1920s was a period of exceptional productivity in American literature. Students can see this reflected in Van Vechten's many portraits of writers listed under Authors, Playwrights, and Poets, in the Occupational Index. Many of these writers expressed their generation's disillusionment with America's ideals of freedom and democracy precipitated by its experience of World War I. Scornful of America's materialistic culture and more at home in Europe than in the states, these writers of the twenties were dubbed the "Lost Generation". Students can find portraits of some of the greatest writers of this period in this collection, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Eugene O'Neill, and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

  • Do Van Vechten's portraits of these writers reflect their status and attitudes as members of the Lost Generation?

Jazz and the Blues

While in the visual and literary arts modernism found its inspiration in Europe, the world looked to America for the modernist expression in music. The innovation and breaks from tradition that characterized modern visual and literary art were expressed musically in jazz. Created by African-American musicians in the South, jazz became more popular in the 1920s as African Americans migrated north to cities such as Chicago, and New York, which became the jazz capitals of the country in the 1920s and 1930s, respectively. The centrality of New York city to the jazz movement is reflected in Van Vechten's many photographs of jazz musicians. Students can find portraits of jazz greats, Dave Brubeck, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and others under Musicians and Singers in the Occupational Index. By researching a few of these and other artists, students may learn about the development of jazz in time and place.

Refer students to the American Memory collection, The William P. Gottlieb Collection for many more portraits of jazz artists by a different photographer. Here they will also find helpful articles and Special Presentations about this musical form and its artists. Students may also enjoy comparing Gottlieb's portraits of musicians with those of Van Vecthen.

Finally, by searching their names in this collection, students may find portraits of George Gershwin, George M. Cohan, and Leonard Bernstein, whose classical works were influenced by jazz. American Memory's The Leonard Bernstein Collection will be invaluable to those wanting to learn more about this individual.

Like jazz, the blues also originated with African Americans in the South and grew in popularity as its musicians migrated North in the 1920s. Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and W.C. Handy are well-known Blues artists that are featured in this collection.

Students can sample recordings of early Blues songs in the American Memory collection, Southern Mosaic by referring to the Subject Index. The American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment, 1870-1920 can be used to learn more about vaudevilles in which both Smith and Waters began their careers.

Harlem Renaissance

Like other writers of the "Lost Generation," African-American writers in the twenties also rebelled against the mainstream culture. However, their rebellion was a rejection of pressures to adopt white culture and an affirmation of pride in their own heritage. This movement, known as the Harlem Renaissance, was led by a group of writers who were living in the ghetto of Harlem, including Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Countee Cullen, whose portraits can be found by searching their names in this collection. Carl Van Vechten made his own contribution to this movement with his novel, Nigger Heaven, as referenced in Van Vechten's Biography. Challenge students to find portraits that express the ideals of this movement and to explain how they do so.

The collection also includes portraits of African-American writers, Richard Wright and James Baldwin, who worked in New York City in the late thirties and forties. Like many of their contemporaries, both authors lived abroad for parts of their lives. By researching these individuals, students may discover what motivated each man to move to France as well as how he contributed to the tradition of literature by African-American writers.


Critical Thinking

Creative Americans: Portraits by Van Vechten, 1932-1964 can be used to learn about artistic movements and individual artists through research projects and comparative exercises. Through comparison, students may also learn to perceive change and continuity through time and understand the techniques by which a photographer conveys meaning in portraits. Finally, with this collection, students can gain a multi-faceted understanding of the African-American migration of the 1920s and explore the issue of America's cultural contribution.

Chronological Thinking

Because the collection's photographs were taken over a period of approximately thirty years, students can use them to trace changes and continuity through time. Have them consider what changes they might expect to observe in Van Vechten's portraits and articulate this in a written hypotheses. Then, they can search the collection, organizing images by date, and determine whether this evidence corroborates or invalidates their hypotheses. Some of the changes they may want to consider include changes in fashion, in costumes and set design, in the photographs' backgrounds, and the people's poses. Ask them to answer the following questions:

  • Did the evidence prove or disprove your hypothesis?
  • Were you surprised by what you found? Why or why not?
  • What changes are observable in these portraits? What do you think caused these changes?
  • If the pictures did not show changes that you expected to find, how might you account for their absence? Would you attribute this to your own assumptions or to the collection?

Historical Comprehension

As white families moved from cities to suburbs and the advent of World War I created a shortage of labor in northern cities, African Americans began to migrate north from their southern rural homes. During the 1920s, 1.5 million African Americans migrated north in hope of employment and relief from the prejudice that oppressed them so severely in the South. Van Vechten's many portraits of African-American performers, writers, and musicians taken in New York City reflect his interest in African Americans and the arts, but they also reflect the growing presence of African Americans in northern cities resulting from the mass migration of the 1920s. More than this, these portraits also document the impact of this migration in popularizing African-American artistic movements, such as jazz, the blues, and the Harlem Renaissance. Students can use this collection to gain a multi-faceted understanding of this mass migration by browsing the Subject Index and the Occupational Index.

Students can supplement their understanding of the causes and consequences of this migration with information from other American Memory collections. Search on Harlem and Chicago in American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 for accounts of what life was like for people as they settled in these urban centers. To see how African-American art forms changed with popularization, students can compare early blues music found in Southern Mosaic with blues music from the late twentieth century, or search on jazz in American Memory for materials to compare with contemporary jazz.

Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Webster defines a portrait as "a pictorial representation of a person usually showing his face." But some of Van Vecthen's portraits, like this one of Rose Covarrubias, don't even offer a good view of the person's face.

Why did he do this? How does that make for a good representation of a person? Is it a good representation of a person? Would you even call that a portrait? What would you call it?

Students can develop their visual literacy by exploring these and other questions as they compare Van Vechten's photographs.

The above photograph may not seem to offer a good pictorial representation of Rose Covarrubias, but what does it do? If Rose Covarrubias doesn't seem to be the subject of the photograph what is? If she is the subject, what does this photograph tell you about her and how? Have students consider other portraits with these questions. It may help them to think of the photographs in terms of the techniques that Van Vechten used, including the use of props, of light and shadow, background and setting, pose and expression, distance, movement, and composition (that is the arrangement of shapes and lines in the frame). Ask students to identify what techniques Van Vechten used and how they influence what one sees and thinks about the person depicted.

Another way students can appreciate Van Vechten's volition is to compare how he photographed people of different professions, using the Occupational Index. Or they can compare his portraits with those of William P. Gottlieb in Photographs from the Golden Age of Jazz.

Historical Issue Analysis and Decision Making

This collection documents Americans grappling with the question of their country's cultural contribution to the world in the early twentieth century. Van Vechten's portraits of expatriates such as Gertrude Stein, Richard Wright, and Henry Miller evidence one group's faith in Europe as the cultural center of the world and its dissatisfaction with American culture. However, these portraits also document the rise of New York City as an international cultural center and the growth of artistic movements rooted in America, such as jazz, the blues, and the Harlem Renaissance. Students can use this collection to learn more about the different sides to the issue of America's cultural contribution, study the history of this issue in other sources, and form some conclusions of their own about the value of American culture. Helpful books for older students include Malcolm Cowley's Exhile's Return and Michael Kammen's Mystic Chords of Memory. Students can use the following questions in their study.

  • How do you define something as "American"? Is this a legitimate or helpful distinction?
  • Why were Modernist expatriates dissatisfied with American culture in the inter-war years? Who else in American history believed in the cultural superiority of Europe and why?
  • How did American artists and intellectuals of the nineteenth century feel about America's ability to produce unique and powerful works of art? Students may want to research leaders of the American Renaissance such as Emerson, Hawthorne, Whitman, and Dickinson.
  • African Americans originated the traditions of the blues, jazz, and American popular music. What other cultural traditions are native to America and who created them?
  • What would you guess Van Vechten himself thought about American culture given his collection of portraits of creative Americans? What do his photographs of landscapes, antiques, and architecture suggest about his attitude?
  • What role has immigration played in defining American culture?
  • What is the difference between high art and popular culture? Do you think this is a legitimate or helpful distinction? How has American culture affected the meaning of these terms?
  • What do you think America's cultural contribution to the world has been?

Historical Research Capabilities

Because the majority of Van Vecthen's portraits are of lesser-known artists, this collection lends itself to numerous research projects. Students have only to browse the collection until they find someone they would like to learn more about. There are also many better-known individuals whom students are unlikely to be familiar with, such as Erskine Caldwell, Mary Martin, Paul Robeson, and Marsden Hartley. Teachers may compile a list of people who are likely to make good subjects for a research project. The emphasis of research can vary from the individual's biography to his or her relationship to the historical, artistic, cultural, and political backgrounds in which he or she worked. Older students can use caption information such as titles, places, dates, and names to begin research of the historical and artistic movements outlined in the U.S. History section, including modern dance, theatre, visual art, or writing.


Arts & Humanities

Creative Americans: Portraits by Van Vechten, 1932-1964 affords a variety of projects that will hone students' skills in the language arts and help them to understand the relationships between language arts and the visual and performing arts. Students may explore questions of authorship by creating their own portraits and by studying biography. They can learn about the profession of criticism and try writing their own critical pieces, or practice their creative writing skills by using a portrait as inspiration for a character sketch. The collection also provides the basis for a project which can be used to assess reading comprehension and to help students understand the relationship between literature and drama.


In addition to being a photographer, Carl Van Vechten was also a published novelist and arts critic. Students can learn about the profession of criticism and write a critical piece of their own. They can start with an account of Van Vechten's career in the collection's biography. Ask them to consider if and how Van Vechten's career as a critic is reflected in his portraits. They may also view Van Vechten's portraits of critics, H.L. Mencken, Gilbert Seldes, and Malcolm Cowley and find out more about each of these individuals through research. Ask your students to consider the similarities and differences between these critics and their writings. What were the subjects of these writers' criticism? Did their criticisms tend to be negative or positive, sarcastic or sincere? What did these critics accomplish through their writing and what purposes did they serve? What is the role of a critic in society?

Working with an example from their research or from current-day periodicals, students can write a critical piece of their own. Whether they write a review of a local production, new movie, or newly released CD, or write a social criticism, they can practice making a persuasive argument, using irony, sarcasm, and humor.

Character Sketch and Short Story

Students can use any portrait from this collection as the starting point for a character sketch, especially the portraits of people who are not celebrities. They can use the details of a portrait, from the person's appearance, expression, name, and setting, to the date and caption, to create the details of a believable and compelling fictional character. If students enjoy this activity, they may want to develop their character sketches into short stories.

Biography and Biographical Fiction

Portraits of famous individuals in this collection provide starting points for projects related to biography. Students can choose a famous person from the collection and read a biography of that individual. Have them consider the relationship between history and biography with the following questions:

  • What did you learn about history by reading this biography? This may include events, political, social, and artistic movements, and cultural trends.
  • To what extent is your subject and his or her life representative of common experiences and historical trends?
  • How did the person you read about contribute to American history and culture? How might American history and culture have been different without this person's contribution?
  • How did the time in which this person lived impact and influence him or her? Would you say that this person was a product of his or her time? If so, in what ways?

Students may write their own abbreviated biography of this person based on the biography they chose and any other additional resources. In this way, they may consider questions of authorship and representation such as What main ideas do I want to express about this person and his or her life? What information needs to be included? What can be left out? How can I be creative and interpretive while remaining objective? How can I express credibility? How does my selection and organization of information about my subject affect the way my reader may perceive that subject?

Biography has often provided the inspiration for creative works in fiction and film. Examples in film include Amadeus, directed by Milos Forman, Nixon, directed by Oliver North, Elizabeth, directed by Shekhar Kapur, The Miracle Worker directed by Penn Arthur, and Out of Africa, directed by Sydney Pollack. Students can compare one of these works with a correlative biography, or they can write their own piece of short fiction based upon biography. Students can imagine the details of an event or period in a person's life as described or alluded to in a biography. Points in a biography that are lacking in detail or information provide a natural starting point for this exercise.


Students can also explore questions of authorship by making their own photographic portraits. Have them decide who they want to make a portrait of and why. Do they want to record a person's appearance for posterity's sake, or do they want to convey something in particular about the person? How does a photographer make his or her portrait express the qualities or essence of an individual that are invisible? Students may want to take a whole roll of film of the same person, or they may want to try photographing a variety of people. The class can share their portraits with each other and with others by displaying them in an exhibition. Ask each student to choose one picture and to write a brief paragraph about it with the artist's name, and a title and date, to accompany the photograph on the wall.


Teachers can foster their classes' comprehension of any work of fiction, its characters, setting, and plot, by asking students to imagine that they were going to present it as a play and to make costume and set designs for the production. For examples, students can browse Van Vechten's photographs and refer to costume sketches from "The Play that Electrified Harlem" in The New Deal Stage. Literary comprehension can also be strengthened and assessed by asking students to turn a portion of the text into a dramatic scene by writing a screenplay with dialog and stage directions. These exercises will also help students to understand the differences between fiction and drama and will encourage them to read imaginatively.