The powerful sense of loss and alienation in (Portrait) is underlined by the artist’s black and white palette; the subject is shown in an almost ashen light. He recedes into darkness, a ghost only momentarily drawn from the shadow. The size of (Portrait) is unusually large, fully 2.5 feet high, such that the child’s face dominates the room. For this reason, the night cleaning staff have traditionally hung (Portrait) to face the wall rather than the museum’s interior, and we are all a little more comfortable because of that.
One subject of heated discussion among the three or four students of art history who have been able to approach (Portrait of a Boy) for closer inspection is that of the child’s strange eyes. From a distance, they appear slitted, like a cat, or like the strange bifurcated pupils of a sheep or goat. Up close, they seem to have caught something, perhaps what the child saw last. The eye at canvas left seems to be reflecting the distinctive shape of the wake of an atomic explosion, a mushroom cloud. Perhaps the ashy lack of color and the child’s haunted expression is a reflection of the impending sense of mortality and doom of the Atomic age.