A tall, bearded man stands at the top of the stairs in a doorway to a beautiful palace. Dressed in stunningly white robes, he looks down at us from his perch at the threshold to this impressive architectural space. A crimson red cap is just barely visible underneath the hooded cloak he wears. The man faces us with his left foot firmly planted on the top stair and his right on the stair below, as if stopped midstride. His left hand gathers his robes at his knee, revealing his sandaled feet and bare ankles. In his other hand he holds a sword, the long, slender blade extending down at his side toward his toes. The outer layer of his white robes is lifted over his right shoulder revealing his muscular arm and two richly decorated scabbards (sword covers) tucked into his golden belt. The golden and bejeweled handle of a blade is clearly visible in one scabbard, while the other is empty, likely belonging to the sword at his side.
Behind the man is a spectacular palace. Parts of it are bathed in a warm golden light, while others are obscured in dark shadows, adding to the dramatic feeling of the painting. Who is this man? And what is this place? People have speculated about his identity for more than a hundred years. The artist hired an unknown studio model to pose for this painting and dressed him up in a costume to create this intriguing image of a powerful man. The palace in the background is based on the Alhambra, a famous building in Granada, Spain, which was built in the 1200s and 1300s by Muslims from northwestern Africa, known as Moors, who ruled large parts of Spain. So even though this painting was inspired by real people and real places, the painting itself is an imaginative fiction created by the artist.
Eduard Charlemont (Austrian, 1848–1906) was born in Vienna, the capital of Austria. His father was a professional artist who painted miniature portraits and encouraged his talented son to help in his workshop and learn from this practice. Charlemont went on to study painting at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna and later traveled throughout Europe, eventually settling in Paris, the center of the art world in the 1800s. Charlemont lived in Paris for the next thirty years of his life and in that time he won several prizes at the Paris Salons, the annual government-sponsored exhibitions hosted by the Academie des Beaux-Arts. His masterwork was not a painting, but rather a series of murals created for Vienna’s city theater that each measured almost sixty feet in length.
Source: Philadelphia Museum of Art