In the first monograph on Ludwig Meidner, Lothar Brieger concentrated almost completely on the portraits by the artist and ignored what must have impressed many in those years of Germany's total collapse - Meidner's prophetic apocalyptical paintings of big city life. He states: "Perhaps nowhere in 20th century Germany are the portraits like Meidner's in which an artist has pursued the revelation of spiritual and intellectual qualities with such intense penetration, with such almost pedantic attractiveness. In 1918, when one entered the Cassirer Gallery in Berlin where Meidner had his first large scale exhibition, one was almost frightened by the sights of souls, on all the walls, stripped bare with unexpected shamelessness." (L. Brieger, Ludwig Meidner. Mit einer Selbstbiographie des Kunstlers,, Leipzig, 1919, p. 3)
From circa 1912 onwards, Ludwig Meidner started experimenting with portraiture. The images of destruction, violence and turmoil are now brought into the artist's studio and presented in a more direct and intimate manner: through this haunted image of a melancholic sitter. As many of his expressionist contemporaries clearly influenced by Vincent van Gogh, he found himself to be the most willing subject. His self portraits marked a long period of introspection. Although they are amongst Meidner's most renown paintings, for his exploration of the human soul and Zeitgeist, he also used other sitters. Portraits of writer Max-Hermann Neisse (painted in 1913) and poet Johannes R. Becher (painted in 1916) are clear examples how Meidner's uses the human physiognomy as a mirror for these troubled times. During the crisis and war years in Berlin he suffered immense financial difficulties, and the accounts of his working methods reveal his physical and mental state.
The same intensity as in his auto portraits can be detected in Porträt eines jungen Mannes (Portrait of a young man). The sitter has a tormented appearance. Leaning his head on his right hand, he is looking straight at us, apparently carrying the heavy burden of an inner struggle during the yeras of war. The work can thus be seen as an allegory of melancholy.
Meidner worked mainly at night in the glow of gaslight. As the painting is clearly a nocturnal scene, the artificial light makes the contrast between the illuminated parts and the deeper and therefore darker areas more visible. The suggestion of torment is further underlined by the brisk, determined brushstrokes against the darker background. Compared to his pre-war paintings his use of colour is slightly more subdued.
At the end of his life Meidner stated about his portraits that all he was interested in where the faces. Referring to the painting in a letter to Otto Meyer, he states he does not recall who the sitter was. Although melancholy is expressed by the portrayal of a young man, what we actually see is the inner state of mind of the artist Ludwig Meidner himself.