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[Detail] Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald by Carl Van Vechten

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?