Portrait of a Lady ('La Dama in Rosso')

The fashionable costume suggests the date for this picture. The sitter may be Lucia Albani, who married Faustino Avogadro of Brescia in 1550 (possibly represented in the Moroni portrait 'A Knight with his Jousting Helmet'.

She holds an early form of fan in her left hand.

In conversation
Costumier Eileen Sheikh and Al Johnson on 'Portrait of a Lady'
4 mins 33 secs

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): A woman poses for her portrait. She has jewels in her hair and an exquisite satin dress, the striking colour of which will ensure she’s still turning heads over four centuries later. We asked costumier Eileen Sheikh and artist Al Johnson to tell us just what’s so special about Moroni’s Lady in Red.

Eileen Sheikh: My name’s Eileen Sheikh and I’m a costumier.

Al Johnson: My name’s Al Johnson and I’m a sculptor and a lecturer at the National Gallery.

Eileen Sheikh: The Moroni portrait of a woman, or ‘A Lady in Red’ as she’s known, is quite extraordinary because it’s an extremely high fashion that she’s wearing. And you can really see that from the actual colour that she’s wearing which is a deep rose-pink with an underlay skirt of yellow-gold and a red colour shot through that gold and it’s probably a woven textile. So it’s highly likely to be real gold thread within the underskirt and also the bodice which is just revealed at her neckline.

The colour of the fabric is a pink-rose with a gold coming through it – it’s the most extraordinary orangy, pinky silk. The colour is probably cochineal because this was a new dye at the time made out of the bodies of cochineal insects and was imported from the New World, so from South America. And that was only discovered in the 1540s, so you would have been a very high-standing person to actually wear these kinds of pinks and reds. 

Al Johnson: The material is extremely sumptuous. It’s intended to be warm as well as beautiful. The sleeves have got tiny tufts of white silk pulled through – this was an effort to show, I think, that this lady had at least three layers of cloth, all different kinds of cloth to show her extreme wealth.

Eileen Sheikh: In the Renaissance period you would have been able to obtain a vast range of fabrics dyed in various shades of red. Different reds produced by the kermes insect – you get anything from a very vivid dark red, a scarlet or a cardinal red, right the way through to something that’s called maiden’s blush, which would have been a very pale pink. In between, different names that appear in literature of the period describing reds: catherine’s pear, carnation, incarnate, sanguine, stammel, flame (an obvious one), gingerleen, murray and peach. But other colours are also described in the same way, so a very vivid one is goose-turd green, which I think we can all imagine what that might look like.

Al Johnson: Red is such a heavily symbolic colour. I think that’s partly why it interests me. References of course to blood and it’s a visceral colour, it’s the colour of the internal form of the body. It has references to war and destruction – it’s a masculine colour and in Christian iconography it’s the colour of the crucifixion, the colour of the martyrs. So there are all these kind of very male, very dominant references to red. But what interests me, I suppose, is its paradoxical nature – that it’s also the colour of sexuality – the colour of lipstick and lingerie – so it’s also a female colour.

Eileen Sheikh: Dying fabric using the kermes insect or the cochineal insect can be done in various different ways, and actually to produce the different hues that you require – so either the very deep blueish, purply pinks, or the really deep reds, or the very pale pinks – you might well have started by crushing the insects themselves and crushing the bodies to actually produce a dye in a little bag that you would then put into a dye bath.

And dyeing thick satin needed great care and attention to make sure that none of the fabric was exposed to light while it’s in the dye bath. The fabric has to be completely submerged all the time to get an even tone. The dye must be perfectly suffused all the way through the liquid to make sure that there are no patches of darkness or almost a sort of tie-die effect that can happen if you’ve got a large amount of fabric in one dye bath. And so these dyers were incredibly experienced, incredibly scientific in the way that they produced their fabrics, and those would have all been in Venice where still the best silks come out of that area.

Al Johnson: I work with paradox in the sculpture I make because I make work that’s very often about ideas that are quite big or quite difficult to encompass. And red I’ve used extensively because it has this paradoxical nature and so I feel it reflects the kind of paradox that I’m trying to uncover or explore in a piece of work. I’ve been working on a series of sculptures about women and the military. The paradox seems to me that we don’t regard women as being aggressive or militaristic, so I wanted to try and explore that so I used red because it has these masculine qualities, but at the same time, these feminine sexual qualities.

The series of works started by making a series of weapons. I made wooden dummies based on First and Second World War guns and contemporary military issue and then they were covered initially in red satin, and I felt that the sumptuousness and the sexiness, the sensuality of the satin, undermined the objects, so that you had something that appeared to be a weapon and yet it was undermined by the material from which it was made.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Eileen Sheikh and Al Johnson talking about a much-loved treasure of the Gallery’s permanent collection, Moroni’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’, or ‘Lady in Red’.

Key facts

Artist dates
1520/4 - 1579
Full title
Portrait of a Lady, perhaps Contessa Lucia Albani Avogadro ('La Dama in Rosso')
Date made
about 1556-60
Medium and support
Oil on canvas
155 x 106.8 cm
Acquisition credit
Bought, 1876
Inventory number
Location in Gallery