Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he was the youngest child of Charles and Ada Van Vechten.:14 He graduated from Washington High School in 1898, and later the University of Chicago in 1903. In 1906, he moved to New York City. He was hired as the assistant music critic at The New York Times. His interest in opera had him take a leave of absence from the paper in 1907, to travel to Europe to explore opera. While in England he married his long-time friend from Cedar Rapids, Anna Snyder. He returned to his job at the New York Times in 1909, where he became the first American critic of modern dance. At that time, Isadora Duncan, Anna Pavlova, and Loie Fuller were performing in New York City. The marriage to Anna Snyder ended in divorce in 1912 and he wed actress Fania Marinoff in 1914. Their marriage lasted until the end of his life, even while his relationships with men were an open secret.
Van Vechten initially met Gertrude Stein in Paris in 1913. They continued corresponding for the remainder of Stein's life, and at her death she appointed Van Vechten her literary executor; he helped to bring into print her unpublished writings.:306
Several books of Van Vechten's essays on various subjects such as music and literature were published between 1915 and 1920. Between 1922 and 1930 Knopf published seven novels by Van Vechten, starting with Peter Whiffle: His Life and Works and ending with Parties.
Van Vechten was interested in black writers and artists, and knew and promoted many of the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, Ethel Waters, Richard Wright, and Wallace Thurman. Van Vechten's controversial novel Nigger Heaven was published in 1926. His essay "Negro Blues Singers" was published in Vanity Fair in 1926. Biographer Edward White suggests Van Vechten was convinced that Negro culture was the essence of America.
His older brother Ralph Van Vechten died on June 28, 1927; when Ralph's widow Fannie died in 1928, Van Vechten inherited $1 million invested in a trust fund which was unaffected by the stock market crash of 1929; the fund provided financial support for Carl and Fania.:242–244
In the 1930s, Van Vechten began taking portrait photographs. Among the many individuals he photographed were Alvin Ailey, Edward Albee, Judith Anderson, Marian Anderson, Antony Armstrong-Jones, Pearl Bailey, Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, Tallulah Bankhead, Theda Bara, Harry Belafonte, Barbara Bel Geddes, Thomas Hart Benton, Leonard Bernstein, Mary McLeod Bethune, Karen Blixen, Jane Bowles, Marlon Brando, James Branch Cabell, Paul Cadmus, Erskine Caldwell, Truman Capote, Bennett Cerf, Marc Chagall, Katharine Cornell, Countee Cullen, Salvador Dalí, Ossie Davis, Giorgio de Chirico, Roald Dahl, Ruby Dee, Alfred Drake, Jacob Epstein, Ella Fitzgerald, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lynn Fontanne, Dizzy Gillespie, Martha Graham, John Hersey, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Horst P. Horst, Christopher Isherwood, Mahalia Jackson, Philip Johnson, Frida Kahlo, Eartha Kitt, Gaston Lachaise, Fernand Léger, Lotte Lenya, Sidney Lumet, Alfred Lunt, Norman Mailer, Alicia Markova, Henri Matisse, W. Somerset Maugham, Elsa Maxwell, Carson McCullers, Colin McPhee, Gian Carlo Menotti, Henry Miller, Joan Miró, Marianne Moore, Helen Morgan, Robert Morse, Patricia Neal, Ramón Novarro, Georgia O'Keeffe, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Leontyne Price, Diego Rivera, Jerome Robbins, Paul Robeson, Cesar Romero, George Schuyler, Beverly Sills, Gertrude Stein, James Stewart, Alfred Stieglitz, Ada "Bricktop" Smith, Bessie Smith, Paul Taylor, Prentiss Taylor, Alice B. Toklas, Gloria Vanderbilt, Gore Vidal, Hugh Walpole, Evelyn Waugh, Orson Welles, Thornton Wilder, Thomas Wolfe, Anna May Wong, Lin Yutang and Richard Wright.
After the 1930s, Van Vechten published little writing, though he continued to write letters to many correspondents.
He died at the age of 84 in New York City. Van Vechten was the subject of a 1968 biography by Bruce Kellner, Carl Van Vechten and the Irreverent Decades, as well as Edward White's 2014 biography, The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America.
Most of Van Vechten's papers are held by the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. The Beinecke Library also holds a collection titled "Living Portraits: Carl Van Vechten's Color Photographs Of African Americans, 1939–1964", a collection of 1,884 color Kodachrome slides. The Library of Congress acquired its collection of approximately 1,400 photographs in 1966 from Saul Mauriber. There is also a collection of his photos in the Prentiss Taylor collection in the Archives of American Art, a division of the Smithsonian Institution and a Van Vechten collection at Fisk University. The Museum of the City of New York's collection includes 2,174 of Carl Van Vechten's photographs. holds . Van Vechten also donated materials to Fisk University to form the George Gershwin Memorial Collection of Music and Musical Literature.:284
- Music After the Great War (1915)
- Music and Bad Manners (1916)
- Interpreters and Interpretations (1917)
- The Merry-Go-Round (1918)
- The Music of Spain (1918)
- In the Garret (1919)
- The Tiger in the House (1920)
- Lords of the Housetops (1921)
- Peter Whiffle (1922)
- The Blind Bow-Boy (1923)
- The Tattooed Countess (1924)
- Red (1925)
- Firecrackers. A Realistic Novel (1925)
- Excavations (1926)
- Nigger Heaven (1926)
- Spider Boy (1928)
- Parties (1930)
- Feathers (1930)
- Sacred and Profane Memories (1932)