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Published on May 26th, 2017 | by Zuzanna Stanska

Ladies In Red – Famous Red Dresses In Art

Red in art history symbolizes many things. First of all, it was a color of power, status and wealth. Kings, princes and, beginning in 1295, Roman Catholic cardinals began to wear red colored habitus. In medieval painting red was used to attract attention to the most important figures; both Christ and the Virgin Mary were commonly painted wearing red mantles. It was also connected to red as a symbol of martyrs and sacrifice, particularly because of its association with blood.

Another association of red is love and seduction, sexuality, eroticism and immorality. It was long seen as having a dark side, particularly in Christian theology. It was associated with sexual passion, anger, sin, and the devil. In the Old Testament of the Bible, the Book of Isaiah said: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.” In the New Testament, in the Book of Revelation, the Antichrist appears as a red monster, ridden by a woman dressed in scarlet (lol), known as the Whore of Babylon. Maybe this is why red was also associated with prostitution.

So many associations which excludes themselves! We have picked for you 10 ladies wearing red dresses painted by famous artists. You will find there Madonnas, prostitutes, symbolic figures and even a journalist:

1. Jan van Eyck, Lucca Madonna

Jan van Eyck, Lucca Madonna, ca 1437, Stadel Museum Red Dresses Art

Jan van Eyck, Lucca Madonna, ca 1437, Stadel Museum

The Lucca Madonna served her unknown patron as a medium of private devotion. As in 14th century, there were a lot of paintings about the Virgin wearing her traditional red robe under a blue cloak, supporting the child in her arms in various postures. Lucca Madonna was one of those. The huge drapery is in red covering the whole body. Its symbolic meaning is life, energy and Jesus Christ’s passion. Again, it is a symbolic colour of Christ’s martyrdom and redemption. However natural in appearance, the scene is full of other religious symbolic references. The fruit in the Christ child’s hand, for example, alludes to the Fall of Man, the consequences of which are overcome through the incarnation of God. The throne with its lion decorations symbolizes not only the judgement seat of the proverbially just king Solomon, an ancestor to Christ, but also the Last Judgement.

Giorgione, Young Woman (“Laura”)

Giorgione, Young Woman (“Laura”), 1506, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna Red Dresses Art

Giorgione, Young Woman (“Laura”), 1506, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

 The half-length portrait created by one of my favorite painters depicts a young woman in a fur-trimmed red cloak. The laurel-tree (Italian: lauro) may be intended as a coded reference to the subject’s name but it could also been and attribute of poetry. And yet another possibility is, that this young lady was a prostitute. The winter clothing of wealthy Venetian courtesans was usually a beautiful garment lined with fur. Her nonchalant way of wearing the fur supports this interpretation. With this portrait Giorgione created a prototype for later depictions of courtesans in Venetian painting.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels, 1656-1657, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin Red Dresses Art

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels, 1656-1657, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

The informal pose and dress – a housecoat, glowing deep red in places and tied casually over the low-cut white undergarment – suggest a familiar relationship between Rembrandt and model. For this reason the woman was identified as his later companion Hendrickje Stoffels. The pictorial type reveals his familiarity with Palma Vecchio’s portraits of courtesans. This is confirmed by scientific investigations showing that the movement of the right arm originally corresponded with the Venetian model, but was then increasingly modified. While the ring on Hendrickje’s chain gives her the status of a married woman, the courtesan’s pose reflects the extramarital relationship disapproved of by the church.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Gabrielle in a Red Dress

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Gabrielle in a Red Dress, 1908, Harvard Art Museum Red Dresses Art

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Gabrielle in a Red Dress, 1908, Harvard Art Museum

Renoir painted Gabrielle Renard more than two hundred times. In several of the portraits, she wears the same informal, square-necked gown like this one seen here. By 1908, she had been employed in Renoir’s household for fourteen years, as a nanny, housekeeper, model, and companion to the aging artist.

This painting’s gold and brownish-red palette, loose brushwork, and stylized, heavy forms typify Renoir’s late work; he adopted the style in response to the ancient murals of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which he had seen in Naples.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Loving Cup

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Loving Cup, 1867, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo Red Dresses Art

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Loving Cup, 1867, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo

Rossetti was known for his lively relationships with women. He used his female friends and lovers as models to represent his own image in relationship to the heroines of stories. The model for this painting is Alexa Wilding, who frequently appeared in Rossetti’s works from the spring of 1865 onwards.

This cup she holds is a cup from which close friends and especially lovers both drink. Here the cup is suitably embellished with heart-shaped designs. The frame of this work is inscribed “Douce nuit et joyeux jour/ A chevalier de bel amour (Sweet night and pleasant day/to the beautifully loved knight).” This inscription shows that the image probably represents a toast to the woman’s knight, who is leaving for war or has left for war. While the source of this quote is uncertain, it is thought that Rossetti, steeped in Arthurian legend, wrote the poem himself.

József Rippl-Rónai, Lady in Red

József Rippl-Rónai, Lady in Red, 1898. Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest Red Dresses Art

József Rippl-Rónai, Lady in Red, 1898. Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest

József Rippl-Rónai, the outstanding artist of Hungarian post-impressionism,  was active as a member of the Nabis during his stay in Paris in the last decade of the 19th century. Rippl-Ronai designed the dining room furnishing of count Tivadar Andrássy’s Buda palace. From the textile decoration, only the tapestry created out of this study drawing survived World War II. In the middle, the woman in the red dress turns partly away from the viewer. There is a tiny flower in one hand, and the other hand is stretched behind her with the typical gesture of Japanese prints. The figure and the vegetation are surrounded by dark brown outlines. The tapestry was embroidered by the French wife of the artist, Lazarine Boudrion.

Egon Schiele, Kneeling Female in Orange-Red Dress

Egon Schiele, Kneeling Female in Orange-Red Dress, 1910, Leopold Museum Vienna Red Dresses Art

Egon Schiele, Kneeling Female in Orange-Red Dress, 1910, Leopold Museum Vienna

Egon Schiele seems to have had a thing for red and orange. And for the drawings showing naked female bodies, but that is another story. The girl on the drawing is not Edith, Schiele’s wife, nor Wally, his long time lover who served as a model for some of his most striking paintings. The name of this girl remain unknown.

Edvard Munch, The Dance of Life

Edvard Munch, The Dance of Life, 1899-1900, National Gallery, Oslo Red Dresses Art

Edvard Munch, The Dance of Life, 1899-1900, Najonalmuseet, Oslo

The motif Dance of Life is central to Munch‘s series Frieze of Life. In the middle a young couple are dancing. They seem to have melted together. The woman’s red dress wraps itself around the man’s leg. The red colour continues like a contour line around the man and runs into his clothes. They dance face to face, silent and unsmiling, and the woman’s hair blows towards the man.
On either side of the couple there is a woman. In from the left a young woman dressed in white comes towards us, bright and happy. On the right stands a woman dressed in black, rigid and serious.

When Munch painted Dance of Life in 1899 he was inspired by symbolism and used colours symbolically to express different feelings: red for love, passion and pain; white for youth, innocence and joy; and black for loneliness, sorrow and death.

Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden, Otto Dix

Otto Dix, Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden, 1926, Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris Red Dresses Art

Otto Dix, Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden, 1926, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

Otto Dix is demonstrating here the “new woman” that was emerging in Germany during the 1920’s. His demonstration is showing the social changes that were present during this time in Germany. The new woman, or “neue frau” in German, was a woman who left all previous conventions of what a woman was supposed to be behind. This new woman smoked, drank, was career oriented, and didn’t care much about marriage or creating a family. This was not the way in which women acted before this time. The red tartan here is a modern symbol of power.


About the Author

Art Historian, huge fan of Giorgione or Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Founder and CEO of DailyArtDaily.com and DailyArt mobile app. But to be honest, her greatest accomplishment is being the owner of Pimpek the Cat.



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