Living Portraits: Carl Van Vechten's Color Photographs of African Americans, 1939-1964

Photographs of artists, entertainers, activists, educators, and public intellectuals taken by Carl Van Vechten.

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964), photographer, promotor of literary talent, and critic of dance, theater, and opera, had an artistic vision rooted in the centrality of the talented person. He cherished accomplishment, whether in music, dance, theater, fine art, literature, sport, or advocacy. He began to make photographic portraits in 1932; in 1939 he discovered newly available color film. For a quarter century, he invited friends and acquaintances, well-known artists, fledgling entertainers, and public intellectuals to sit for him, often against backdrops reminiscent of the vivid colors and patterns of a Matisse painting. Among his subjects are a very young Diahann Carroll, Billie Holiday in tears, Paul Robeson as Othello, Althea Gibson swinging a tennis racquet, and a procession of opera stars, composers, authors, musicians, activists, educators, and journalists who made notable contributions to the cultural and intellectual life of the country. Also included are brilliant color images of notable and everyday places: Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee; the wedding of friends; pushcarts and street scenes of Harlem; children at play in a housing project's yard.

The Collection

Color slides of Blacks.
1,884 color Kodachrome slides, 2 x 2 inches each.

African Americana
American Literature
Call Numbers
JWJ Van Vechten
Photographs by Carl Van Vechten are used with permission of the Van Vechten Trust; the permission of the Trust is required to reprint or use Van Vechten photographs in any way. To contact the Trust email: Van Vechten Trust (
Carl Van Vechten Papers, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University


Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library
121 Wall Street | New Haven, CT 06511
Campus Map

Tel: (203) 432-2977    Fax: (203) 432-4047

USPS: Mailing Address and Information

email: Ask a Librarian



The exhibition gallery is closed while the library's building is under renovation.

Temporary Reading Room Hours 
Monday - Friday: 9 am to 4:45 pm

The temporary reading room is located in Yale's Sterling Memorial Library, across Wall Street from the Beinecke.

Holiday Schedule and Closed Collections Schedule