Portrait of a Boy is an exceptional painting by Lee-Smith, a rare oil from his Cleveland period of the late 1930s, and one of his earliest paintings to come to auction. The talent of an artist on the cusp of his career is evident. In 1938, Lee-Smith had just graduated from the Cleveland School of Art with honors, where he studied under Clarence Carter, and won a scholarship to continue studying for a fifth year. He was also teaching art at Karamu House in Cleveland, joining Charles Sallée, Elmer Brown, and William E. Smith. The group all received WPA commissions in printmaking - Lee-Smith in lithography - from Clarence Carter, now the Ohio WPA district director. Lee-Smith's noteworthy rise was soon recognized by his inclusion in Alain Locke's The Negro in Art, published in 1940.
Portrait of a Boy is not only of Lee-Smith's earliest portraits to come to auction, it is an important early work in Lee-Smith's career-long interest in depicting isolated youth. Dr. King-Hammond describes how this painting and Lee-Smith's Coal Breakers, also from 1938, "reveal his preoccupation with social realist themes" - she describes Lee-Smith capturing "an attitude of boredom and restlessness." The Depression enabled more American artists to embrace social-realism, and made paintings that were socially and politically engaging relevant. Lee-Smith rejected the American scene painting of the time, and showed the struggles of young African-American men in their harsh, new world. Marion p. 21; King-Hammond p. 16.