The Harlem Renaissance Through Portraits

By Daniela Sol
     In accord with Black History month the exhibit Harlem Heroes: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten at the Smithsonian American Art Mueseum promises a unique portrayal of the great minds that emerged from the Harlem Renaissance in a composition of intimate portraits.

     Carl Van Vechten was a photographer that emerged and submerged in the cultural awakening that was the Harlem Renaissance, as he captured the lives of the various musicians, painters, writers and many more artists that arose in such time. Available in this exhibit is a collection of thirty-nine pictures from his time in New York City selected by art curator John Jacob. The pictures belonged to the SAAM’s private collection and Jacob is the McEvory family’s art curator, the previous owners of the pictures.
     Van Vechten was obsessed with the art of photography. In this collection of portraits, he not only captures the essence of the artists but manages to show the artistic awakening that Harlem brought upon the 20th century. Amongst the installation you will find portraits of artists such as: James Baldwin, Ossie Davis, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ella Fitzgerald, Althea Gibson, Langston Hughes, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Bessie Smith, and others.
     What is unique about the exhibit is that the installation is composed of both the portrait of the artist plus a work or a phrase belonging or related to the artist. The pictures are not just simple portraits of the artists on the cusp of their success, but also exemplars of the struggles and adversities they had to go through to become such legends. As you walk around the exhibit you are not just surrounded by the faces of revolutionaries of the art, but their work itself is alive and vibrant, creating an ongoing conversation between viewer and artist; making the visit all the more special.
     A portrait that stood out was Zora Neil Hurston’s. The sophistication and elegance of Hurston is beautifully captures by Van Vechten and paired up with her famous poem “How it Feels to be Colored Me.” The portrait captures Hurston sideways with a glamorous hat and pearl necklace as the lines “When I set my hat a certain angle and saunter down Seventh avenue” complement the apropos portrait for such line.
     This exhibit was opened to, first, honor Black History month but most importantly to celebrate the grand opening of the African American History and Culture museum which took place last year. This is the first-time Van Vechten’s photographs are installed all together to compose a work as a whole. Not just in a museum exhibit, but since they were first purchased by the McEvory family.
     You can find Harlem Heroes on the second floor south of the Smithsonian American Art Museum on 8th and F street NW, and is displayed until April 2, 2017.

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