NEW YORK — Kalman Aron began drawing pencil and crayon portraits of his family in Latvia when he was 3. A child prodigy, he mounted his first one-boy gallery show when he was 7. He was commissioned to paint the official portrait of the Latvian prime minister when he was 13. He enrolled at an academy of fine arts in Riga, the capital, at 15.
Then, in 1941, when he was 16, the Germans invaded, and his parents, who were Jewish, were killed. But Aron’s artistic talent would spare his life. Over the next four years, he would survive seven Nazi concentration camps by swapping sketches of his captors and their families for scraps of food.
And he lived to become a prominent American portraitist. He died at 93 on Feb. 24 in Santa Monica, Calif., the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust said.
Aron was born near Riga on Sept. 24, 1924. His mother, Sonia, was from Lithuania; his father, Chaim, a custom women’s shoe designer, was from Russia.
After the German invasion, Aron’s father was conscripted for a work detail and never seen again. Aron was herded into Riga’s Jewish ghetto with his older brother and his mother. She was killed later that year in the massacre of 25,000 Jews near the Rumbula forest.
Aron was shipped to slave labor in camps in Latvia, Poland, Germany (where he was sent to Buchenwald) and what was then Czechoslovakia.
“I survived by disappearing,” he told Susan Beilby Magee, author of the book “Into the Light: The Healing Art of Kalman Aron” (2012). “As an artist, I had always been in my own territory, if you will.
“In the camps,” he added, “we never knew when a friend might be struck down and die. So one way to protect yourself, to insulate yourself, was to be alone. A deep, stark place of loneliness is where I was.”
After Nazi guards discovered his artistic ability, he would be temporarily relieved of hard labor and hidden away in a barracks to sketch their portraits or copy photographs of their families. He might be rewarded with a moth-eaten blanket or a morsel of food.
“They wouldn’t pay me anything, but I would get a piece of bread, something to eat,” he was quoted as saying last year in The Jewish Journal. “Without that, I wouldn’t be here.”
“I made it through the Holocaust with a pencil,” he told Steven C. Barber, who is adapting Magee’s book into a documentary, “Into the Light,” for Vanilla Fire Films.
His brother survived World War II, but they lost touch when the Iron Curtain descended on Eastern Europe. Fleeing the advancing Soviet army as the war wound down, Aron was briefly consigned to a displaced-persons camp.
A US soldier whose girlfriend he sketched was impressed with the young man’s talent and brought Aron to the attention of a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Aron soon enrolled on a scholarship and went on to earn a master’s degree.
He moved to the United States in 1949, newly married, unable to speak English and, by his account, carrying only $4.
Settling in California, he began illustrating maps for a living but also completed a pastel portrait drawn from an indelible, haunting memory: of a mother clutching her child so tightly to her face that they are almost fused together.
He later made a painting of the image, measuring 8 feet by 3 feet; it hangs in the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.
One day in 1951, when Magee’s mother, Marichu Beilby, an interior decorator, stopped by a picture-framing store, she was struck by a pastel drawing of a black-eyed 9-month-old baby in the window. It reminded her of the baby she had lost at the same age.
When Beilby learned that the artist was a refugee who had drawn portraits from photographs, she invited Aron to her home to paint a portrait of 6-year-old Susan, Susan’s sister and, from a photo, the lost baby.
Beilby so admired Aron’s talent that she referred him to her wealthy clients, and his work began metamorphosing — from forbidding images evoked by vivid memories of the camps to cathartic vibrant landscapes and portraits commissioned by the likes of Ronald Reagan, André Previn, and Henry Miller.
In 1956, Art in America magazine ranked him as one of “100 outstanding American artists.”
Aron, who lived in Beverly Hills, Calif., was married four times. He is survived by his wife, the former Miriam Sandoval, and a son, David, from his third marriage — to Tanis Furst.
Aron explained that his four years in captivity had provided a unique dimension to his portraiture: He was able to transform his isolation and endurance as a prisoner into an opportunity to delve into the personality of his subjects. Some critics later described his work as psychological realism.
“In the camps, I looked at and studied people,” he told Magee. “The Holocaust gave me an understanding of people that most people won’t understand.”
He continued: “My situation may be a little bit better than some people who came out of the camps. They may have nothing else to do but watch television and think about those bad days in the camps.
“I did that in the beginning, but I got away from thinking about it by doing portraits, landscapes, traveling and painting.
“I think that kept me away from all this agony of ‘How did I survive?’ or ‘Why did I survive?’”