Rediscovering Harlem Renaissance portraits: ‘O, Write My Name’ at Haverford

A 1936 photogravure portrait of Bessie Smith. Courtesy of the Van Vechten Trust & Eakins Press Foundation.

Carl Van Vechten was an important member of the artistic avant-garde of the early 20th century. He was the first modern dance critic for the New York Times; Gertrude Stein’s longtime friend and literary executor; and an important patron of the artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Also a talented amateur photographer, he made thousands of portraits over his lifetime — including portraits of black artists and intellectuals like Bessie Smith, James Weldon Johnson, Horace Pippin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alain Locke.

Fifty photogravure portraits were collected in 1983 and published by the Eakins Press Foundation as "O, Write My Name": American Portraits, Harlem Heroes in a very limited edition. One of the 100 copies of the portfolio, which were available only to public archives, is in in the Haverford College Fine Arts Photography collection in Magill Library. This portfolio serves as the inspiration for a new exhibit in the Sharpless Gallery in the library: Carl Van Vechten: O, Write My Name — Portraits of the Harlem Renaissance and Beyond.

The exhibit, which includes all 50 portraits from the Eakins Press portfolio, also brings together other material by the artists and writers pictured — books, letters, manuscripts, and related artwork — from the library’s Special Collections. It provides a glimpse into the achievements and lasting legacy of the Harlem Renaissance.

Carl Van Vechten: O, Write My Name — Portraits of the Harlem Renaissance and Beyond will run from January 29 through August 19 in the Sharpless Gallery of Haverford College's Magill Library. There will be an opening reception on January 29 from 5 to 6pm in the gallery. Information on the exhibit can be found here.

The Sharpless Gallery in Magill Library is open Monday through Friday from 8am to 7pm, Saturdays from 10am to 5pm, and Sundays from 10am to 7pm. Starting May 15, the gallery will be on its summer schedule.

"O, Write My Name": American Portraits, Harlem Heroes has been reissued by Eakins Press in book form.