The Infante Don Carlos1626 - 1627. Oil on canvas, 209 x 125 cm.
Following his appointment as painter to the King in 1623, Velázquez`s principal task was that of portraying the monarch and his circle. In order to do so he primarily made use of two different typologies: bust-length and full-length portraits, in which the sitters are represented standing and close to the picture plane. Among the characteristics that define the latter group are a limited chromatic range generally based on blacks and greys and a sophisticated use of space. These are works almost totally devoid of any pre-determined spatial coordinates given that it is the figures themselves which generate the space through their volumes and the shadows that they project. Velázquez used these formulas in his early portraits of Philip IV and the Count-Duke of Olivares, perfecting them over the following years. Outstanding examples include the portraits of the Infante Don Carlos and Don Pedro de Berberana. Painted three or four years apart, the sitters are not accompanied by the side tables to be seen up to this point.
Don Carlos (1605-1632) was Phillip IV`s brother and was physically very similar to the King, which meant that for many years this portrait was thought to depict the later. However, it is precisely through a comparison with portraits of the monarch that the identity of the sitter becomes clear. Don Carlos had no specific role at court other than that of accompanying Philip IV when he appeared in public for events such as Corpus Christi processions, trips, the sport of lanzas y cañas (lances and canes), thanksgiving ceremonies, etc. Although the Infante accompanied the King they were not exactly together as protocol required that certain distance was maintained between them and the Infante usually walked a step ahead of his brother, indicating his hierarchical inferiority.
This was a minimal distance but an important one and is comparable to the distance between their respective portraits. While that of Phillip IV is organized through allusions to a monarch`s privileges and obligations, the image of the Infante only includes signs of status and elegance. The piece of paper which the King holds in his right hand which refers to his duties of work and his reforming intentions is here replaced by an elegant glove, while the high-crowed hat on the side table alludes to the administration of justice is substituted in the Infante`s case by a broad-brimmed one which functions both as a piece of clothing and a reference to protocol. Similarly, while in Velázquez`s austere portrait of Phillip IV in the Prado the only adornment to the King`s clothing is the emblem of the Order of the Golden Fleece, the Infante has a sumptuous gold chain across his chest, an accessory that became fashionable in the 1620s. Don Carlos was given a chain of this type by Cardinal Barberini when the Cardinal visited the Spanish court in 1626 (Harris 1970, pp. 364ss.). Velázquez`s manner of painting the Infante`s face does not have the level of abstraction seen in his images of Phillip IV, given that Don Carlos was not associated with the qualities of timelessness, impassiveness and majesty attributed to the monarch.
By this period in his career Velázquez possessed a masterly ability to exploit the potential of a palette of blacks and greys, having previously made brilliant use of earth tones in his Seville period. This was not a personal choice but one imposed by fashion at the Spanish court, in which dark tones prevailed. Rather than playing with the contrast between these clothes and accessory elements that added colour, Velázquez enveloped his sitters in a chromatically similar setting, an approach that also looks to the tradition of court portraiture. What is astonishing is the way the artist was able to transmit an image that simultaneously offers chromatic and textural variety and sumptuousness. In order to achieve this, he played with the light and the highlights, distributing a series of glints and zones of light across the canvas that together give substance and volume to the figure. This is evident here in the Infante`s glittering chain, the emblem of the Golden Fleece, the collar, the cuffs and the lines of grey braid that emphasise the suit.
Standing portraits of this type, painted with a limited chromatic range and a markedly austere approach to space, characterize this early period of Velázquez`s output as court portraitist. From the 1630s onwards and following his return from Italy he would notably expand his chromatic range and make use of a wide variety of settings. Among the exceptions are Pablo de Valladolid (Museo del Prado), in which the earlier formula attains one of its highest peaks of refinement (Text from Portús, J.: Velázquez, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien, 2014, pp. 298-299).