What makes a painting a masterwork?

Take part in this historic debate about the elements of line and color, as personified by a wise, old man and a sensuous young woman in Guercino’s Disegno and Colore.

<em>Disegno and Colore</em>, Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), about 1640. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

Disegno and Colore, Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri), about 1640. Oil on canvas, 90 15/16 x 71 5/16 in. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. Photo © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

Italian draftsman and painter Guercino asks us the question in his painting Disegno and Colore. Inside an artist’s studio, the creative process unfolds before our eyes. On the left, a wise old man personifying disegno—design or drawing—holds up a preparatory sketch of a sleeping cherub. On the right, a beautiful young woman, personifying colore—hues, tones, and the application of paint—creates a vivid painting from his sketch.

The relative merits of disegno and colore were hotly debated by Renaissance critics. Defending artists from Florence and Rome who placed great emphasis on drawing, Giorgio Vasari believed that disegno embodied a synthesis of divine inspiration and observation from nature. His rival Lodovico Dolce, who upheld the Venetian preference for color and light over line, countered that colore held the true potential to capture the vibrancy and vitality of nature.

Where did the creator of this painting stand on the issue? Drawing was a key part of Guercino’s artistic process. But he was also known for his mastery of hue and tone.

What might be the conversation shared between disegno and colore in this studio? Could this be a harmonious partnership, or a bitter rivalry?

Are disegno and colore working together here? Are they competing, or is there an instruction taking place?

Are the concepts of disegno and colore relevant today? To you, is composition or color the key to a masterpiece—or is it something else all together?

Question of the Week is a new blog series inspired by our Masterpiece of the Week tours, offered daily at the Getty Center at 4:00 p.m. Featuring an open and upbeat discussion among visitors and gallery teachers, the tours feature a new object and pose a new question each week.