Trained in Portugal, Alonso Sánchez Coello moved to Antwerp in 1550.
He studied under Antonis Mor (Anthony More), an established court-portrait
specialist who had been in the employ of the Spanish King Philip II since
1554. Sánchez Coello followed his teacher to Madrid in 1559 and assumed his position shortly after 1560. The present portrait of Don Carlos (1545–1568), the only son of Philip II and his first wife (and cousin), Mary of Portugal, was commissioned by Emperor Maximilian II and finished in 1564. Because marriage was planned between Maximilian’s daughter Anna and Don Carlos, her second cousin, the portrait was sent soon after its creation to the Vienna court. The chosen bridegroom, however, was mentally and physically handicapped. A crooked back and a shortened leg restricted his movements, and he was prone to violent outbursts of rage. A head injury resulting from a fall in 1562 had made the situation considerably worse. In 1568 his father finally ordered his arrest. The infant responded with hunger strikes, and his condition deteriorated rapidly. Four months later Don Carlos died. Rumours were spread by the political opponents of the king that he had poisoned his defiant son but these were probably just propaganda. In any case, the heroically depicted protagonist in Schiller’s Don Carlos, Infant of Spain (1787) and Verdi’s Don Carlo (1867) has little in common with the historical person. The painter masterfully disguised the unfavourable physical condition of the potential bridegroom: depicted in the standardised posture characteristic of the full-length court portrait, Don Carlos is turned slightly to the side, making the different length of his legs appear balanced, and the distortion of his torso is hidden underneath the dark cape thrown over his shoulders. Viewers are kept at a distance by the cool coloration and matt surfaces. © Cäcilia Bischoff, Masterpieces of the Picture Gallery, Vienna 2010