Giorgio de Chirico

Portrait of Giorgio de Chirico
Photo by Carl van Vechten, Library of Congress (Public Domaine)

This month’s essay explores the life and work of Giorgio de Chirico, an important artist and author of the 20th century. In the years before World War I, he founded the short-lived Scuola Metafisica (Metaphysical School) art movement that attracted considerable notice, particularly in France, where the Surrealists championed him as a precursor. However, he was instinctively more conservative than the Paris avant-garde and beginning in the post-World War I era, he changed his style to embrace qualities of Renaissance and Baroque art. Thus, he became a pioneer in the revival of Classicism that flourished into a Europe-wide phenomenon in the 1920s. This change toward a more traditional art style soon drew criticism from his old supporters and for many years afterward the Surrealists’ disapproval of his “newer” works shaped the negative attitude of art critics toward his oeuvre in general. Today, art critics have changed their opinion of his work and see his art as influential on a new generation of Italian painters who began painting during the 1980s and 1990s.

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Lived 1888 – 1978

Giuseppe Maria Alberto Giorgio de Chirico (known simply as Giorgio de Chirico) was born in Volos, Greece on July 10, 1888 of Italian parents. His father, Evaristo de Chirico, was a Sicilian barone (baron) descended from a Greek family that had moved from Rhodes to Palermo together with 4000 other Greek Catholic families in 1523. He was a railway engineer and, at the time of Giorgio’s birth, was in charge of the construction of the Thessaly railway. His mother, Gemma Cervetto, was a baronessa (baroness) of Genoese origins who was likely born in Smyrna. Giorgio had an older sister, Adelaide, who died in 1891. In August 1891, his brother Andrea (who changed his name to Alberto Savinio in 1914) was born in Athens. In 1896, the family left Athens and returned to Volos where they stayed until 1899 and it was here that Giorgio took his first drawing lessons. In 1903, Evaristo sent his 15-year-old son to study drawing and painting at Athens Polytechnic Institute, which Giorgio attended until 1906. While he was there, Giorgio developed a lifelong interest in Greek mythology that had been reinforced by his sojourn in Volos, which according to mythology, was the port used by Jason and the Argonauts when they set sail to find the Golden Fleece.

After several years of ill health, his father died in 1905 at the age of 62. The following year, his mother decided to leave Greece with her two sons. After a short visit to Florence, the family settled in Munich where De Chirico attended the Academy of Fine Arts while Andrea studied music. De Chirico studied the art of Arnold Böcklin and Max Klinger, which juxtaposed the fantastic with the commonplace. He also read the works of Schopenhauer, Weininger and especially Nietzsche, with great interest.

De Chirico returned to Italy in the summer of 1909 and spent six months in Milan. By 1910, he was beginning to paint in a simpler style with flat, anonymous surfaces. At the beginning of 1910, he moved to Florence where he painted the first of his “Metaphysical Town Square” series, The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon (1910), after the revelation he felt in Piazza Santa Croce. In this work, the long, sinister and illogical shadows cast by unseen objects onto empty city spaces contrasted starkly with bright, clear light that was rendered in brooding green tonalities. He also painted The Enigma of the Oracle (1910) and The Enigma of the Hour (1910) while in Florence.

Metaphysical School (1909-1919)

Strange Travelers, 1922, Giorgio de Chirico
Strange Travelers, 1922, Giorgio de Chirico
CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The paintings De Chirico produced between 1909 and 1919, his metaphysical period, were characterized by haunted, brooding moods evoked by their images. He attempted to infuse his interpretations of ordinary reality with the impact of mythology and moods like nostalgia and a sense of waiting. The result was a genre of paintings that were haunting and even disturbing. He found inspiration in the unexpected sensations that familiar places or things sometimes produced in him. His metaphysical art combined everyday reality with mythology and evoked inexplicable moods of nostalgia, tense expectation and estrangement. The picture space often featured illogical, contradictory and drastically receding perspectives. At the start of this period, his subjects were motionless cityscapes inspired by the bright daylight of Mediterranean cities, but gradually he turned his attention to studies of cluttered storerooms, sometimes inhabited by mannequin-like hybrid figures. Among his most frequent motifs during this period were arcades, of which he wrote: “The Roman arcade is fate…its voice speaks in riddles which are filled with a peculiarly Roman poetry.”

Key to De Chirico’s work was his love of the classical past. He came to this through his appreciation for German Romanticism, especially reflecting on his reading of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, who impacted the young artist’s painting by encouraging his explorations of what lay beneath the ordinary, everyday view of life. They also revealed to him new ways of looking at the Greek and Roman Classics and different ways of treating themes of tragedy, enigma and melancholy. For De Chirico, the themes and motifs of these classic texts remained valid even in the modern world. However, he recognized that the clash of the past and present produced strange effects—suggesting sorrow, disorientation, nostalgia—and some of the most powerful qualities in his work of the 1910s come from staging this contrast in his art.

In July 1911, he spent several days in Turin on his way to Paris. Turin held particular interest to him since it was the place where Nietzsche had displayed his first signs of madness in 1889. (De Chirico insisted that he was the only man who really understood Nietzsche.) He was profoundly moved by what he called the “metaphysical aspect” of Turin, especially the architecture of its archways and piazzas. The architecture of Turin is featured extensively in paintings he did for the next few years.

Arriving in Paris on July 14, 1911, De Chirico joined his brother Andrea, who had been living there for several years. In the autumn of 1912, he exhibited for the first time three of his pieces at Salon d’Automne: Enigma of the Oracle, Enigma of an Afternoon and Self-Portrait. This was soon followed in March 1913 by an exhibition at Salon des Indépendants. It was at these salon exhibitions that he gained the admiration of Pablo Picasso and especially of the French poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, who were both impressed with his ambiguously ominous scenes of deserted piazzas. Apollinaire wrote a review of the exhibition that De Chirico held in his studio in October, 1913 in L’Intransigeant (The Intransigent). He called De Chirico “the most surprising painter of the young generation.” The two became good friends and in January 1914, the artist and the poet started corresponding with one another through numerous letters. (In 1914, De Chirico painted his well-known Portrait of Apollinaire and the following year Apollinaire dedicated his poem Océan de Terre (Ocean of Earth) to De Chirico).

In De Chirico’s works at this time, such as The Soothsayer’s Recompense (1913) and The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914), classical statues, dark arcades and small, isolated figures were overpowered by their own shadows and by severe, oppressive architecture. This is especially the case in his 1914 painting Gare Montparnasse (Montparnasse Station, also known in English as The Melancholy of Departure) which is one of his most celebrated works. He did not create the painting to represent the actual Montparnasse train station in Paris. Instead, he appropriated architectural elements like a stage designer uses props. The use of multiple vanishing points in the painting produced a disquieting impact on the viewer, who was never able to focus attention on the center of the painting.

In May 1915, De Chirico and his brother returned to Italy to report to the military authorities in Florence for induction into the army for service in World War I. Because of long-standing medical problems, De Chirico was assigned to non-combat duty at a hospital in Ferrara. There, he was able to continue painting and the architecture of that city, with its far perspectives, deepened his sense of the mysterious.

He also developed some differences from his earlier artistic endeavors. In his paintings of this period, such as the Grand Metaphysical Interior (1917) and The Seer (1915), he developed some key differences from his earlier artistic expressions: the groupings of incongruous objects were more compact; the colors were brighter; and dressmakers’ mannequins, compasses, biscuits and paintings on easels assumed a mysterious significance within enigmatic landscapes or interiors.

Other important artistic works painted while he was in Ferrara were The Great Metaphysician (1917), Hector and Andromache (1912), The Troubadour (1916) and The Disquieting Muses (1916-18). Diagnosed with a nervous condition that he had been suffering for several years, he spent a few months at the Villa del Seminario military hospital, where he met Carlo Carrà in 1917. Together the two artists named and described the style they had been developing separately for several years: the Metaphysical School of painting. Meanwhile, his reputation as an artist continued to grow and his first solo public exhibition took place at Casa d’Arte Bragaglia in Rome in February, 1919.

The Return of Craftsmanship

Soon after this first solo show, De Chirico had a revelation while contemplating a Titian painting in Rome’s Galleria Borghese. This inspired him to publish an important article in November 1919 entitled “The Return of Craftsmanship” in the Italian magazine Valori plastici (Plastic Values). In this piece, he advocated a revolutionary change from his previous artistic forms and orientation. He called for a return to iconography and traditional methods of painting. This was the first salvo in his criticism of modern art and with its publication, he became an outspoken opponent of modern art. In adopting a classical artistic manner that was inspired by the work of the Old Masters, especially Raphael and Signorelli, he believed that the arts must return to a sense of order and he became part of the post-war return to order in Western culture. During the 1920s, his interest in the work of these great masters intensified and he became a frequent visitor of museums in Rome and Florence, executing a number of pastiches of works of the Italian Masters. During this time, he published articles on Raphael, Böcklin, Klinger, Previati, Renoir, Gauguin and Morandi in various periodicals. He also studied tempera and panel painting techniques in Florence. In 1921, he held a solo show at Galleria Arte in Milan where he exhibited paintings modeled on the classical styles he had been studying.

In 1922, he painted a Self-Portrait (one of many self-portraits he painted during the 1920s). The portrait shows him on the right side in the style of the Mannerist painters of the 16th century. On the left side, his image is transformed into classical sculpture. This is a good example of his growing interest in traditional techniques that he was incorporating into his art as he moved away from his surrealist form.

In 1924, De Chirico visited Paris and, at the invitation of writer André Breton, he met with a group of young surrealist artists. They were excited to meet him and celebrated his work from the previous decade as pioneering efforts in surrealism. However, they severely criticized his move to classically inspired artistic works of the 1920s. The uneasy alliance with the surrealists grew increasingly contentious. In 1926, De Chirico parted ways with them, referring to them as “cretinous and hostile.”

The video essay below, “When The World Became A De Chirico Painting”, is by Nerdwriter1 on YouTube. He reviews GiGiorgio de Chirico works against the world of 2020 at the height of the pandemic.

In 1928 De Chirico held his first exhibition in New York City and shortly afterwards, in London.

During the 1920s, De Chirico’s work was also branching into other mediums. In 1924, he worked on designs for a ballet in Paris based on a short story by the Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello. In 1928, he made lithographs for a reproduction of Guillaume Apollinaire’s book of poems Calligrammes (calligrams, i.e. poems whose arrangement of verses forms a drawing). In the same year, he wrote his only novel, Hebdomeros, the Metaphysician. Despite his artistic change of direction, the book’s dream-like collection of impressions and situations functions as a literary companion to his metaphysical paintings. By this time De Chirico had distanced himself from the Surrealists, yet Hebdomeros is still considered one of the finest examples of Surrealist literature. He continued to write numerous essays on art and other subjects. Also in 1929, he expanded his work on stage and set design, designing sets for Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballet Russes.

Late-Career Work

In August 1936, De Chirico moved to New York where he exhibited his recent work at the Julien Levy Gallery. A number of paintings were bought by Albert C. Barnes for his museum as well as by other art collectors. The artist continued to publish some of his pictures and commentary in magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Besides other projects, he also designed a dining room for Decorators Picture Gallery in an initiative in which Picasso and Matisse also participated. While in New York, in June 1937, he received news from his brother that their mother had died.

Giorgio de Chirico - self portrait
Photo by Martin Bleek, Flickr

In January 1938, he returned to Italy and exhibited in Rome’s Il Quadrennial d’Arte Nazionale (the National Art Quadrennial) before moving to Milan for a short period of time. He soon left for Paris, outraged by Italy’s racial laws against Jews since his second wife at the time, Isabella Pakszwer Far (1909 1990), was a Russian Jew who had been born in Warsaw. (They had been married in 1930, after he divorced his first wife, Raissa Gurievich (1894-1979), and Isabella would remain with him until his death in 1978). Fleeing Paris after France was taken by the Nazis, he returned to Florence, where a Florentine antiquarian and friend, Luigi Bellini, hosted De Chirico and his wife. He began creating terracotta sculptures of various protagonists of his painting repertoire, including Ariadne (1940), Rider on his Horse (1940) and The Archaeologists (1940). In 1940, he published an essay on sculpture, Brevis Pro Plastica Oratio (A Short Essay or Oration on the Plastic Arts) in the journal Aria d’Italia.

In 1939, De Chirico adopted a neo-Baroque style that was influenced by Peter Paul Rubens. His later paintings, however, never received the same critical acclaim as did those from his earlier metaphysical period. He resented this rejection of his new works since he believed that his later pieces were more mature and superior to the earlier celebrated paintings. In response, he began creating “self-forgeries,” painting copies of his metaphysical works that he backdated as if those pictures had been created in the 1910s. He was interested both in the financial profit he could get from these, as well as thumbing his nose at critics who preferred the early works over the later ones. His rationale for so doing was that the conception of the painting and its execution were still his work; the date that the artistic piece was given was irrelevant to these facts. This, of course, increased the criticism of his work by the art world. He also denounced as forgeries many paintings that were attributed to him in both public and private collections.

He returned to Rome in 1944 after the fall of Mussolini and towards the end of the war in Europe. He bought a house near the Spanish Steps at 31 Piazza di Spagna, which is now the Giorgio de Chirico House Museum that is dedicated to his work and in which he lived until his death in 1978. In 1945, he published a novella, Il Signor Dudron with his own illustrations in the journal Prospettive (Perspectives) and he also published his memoirs in that year.

During the last decade of his life, starting in the late 1960s, the 80-year-old artist could work freely once more following a period in which his time had been primarily occupied by filling art commission contracts. He began a phase of research known as Neo-Metaphysical Art, in which he re-elaborated subject matter from his paintings and graphic works of the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s. These were different than his “self-forgeries” discussed above. He returned to the earlier subjects he had produced, such as The Mannequin, The Troubadour, The Archaeologists, The Gladiators, The Mysterious Baths and The Sun on the Easel and interpreted them in a different light with brighter colors and serene atmospheres compared to the disquieting mood seen in his paintings of these subjects during his early metaphysical period. With profound poetry, new combinations of subjects appeared within the innovative spatial compositions such as the Italian Piazza and the Metaphysical Interior, newly inhabited by mythological characters such as Minerva and Mercury.


In 1948 De Chirico was elected an honorary member of the Royal Society of British Artists.
In 1958 he was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Science, Letters and Fine Arts of Belgium.
In 1974 he was elected to the French Académie des Beaux-Arts.

Giorgio de Chirico died at the age of 90 in Rome on November 20, 1978. In 1992 his remains were moved to the Church of San Francesco a Ripa located in the Trastevere quarter of Rome.

Although De Chirico’s career spanned seventy years, his early metaphysical works are his most significant. His most substantial impact on the history of art was his acceptance by the Surrealists as a pioneer in their realm. Among the artists who openly recognized his influence were Max Ernst, Salvador Dali and René Magritte. The latter said that his first view of De Chirico’s The Song of Love (1914) was “one of the most moving moments of my life: my eyes saw for the first time.” André Breton claimed that he was one of the main torchbearers of a new modern mythology.

For a time he was happy to be courted by the Surrealists, but he later referred to them as “the leaders of modernistic imbecility.” Nevertheless, he was also inspirational for later French avant-garde groups such as the Lettrists and Situationists, particularly in relation to their interest in urbanism. These two groups considered De Chirico an architect as much as a painter, seeing in his enigmatic piazzas and towers visions and plans for future cities.
Besides the art world proper, De Chirico’s influence can be seen on other areas of modern culture. The Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni’s shots of desolate cityscapes and urban anomie, as well as both Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, owe a debt to the imagery of Giorgio de Chirico. Also, his art influenced the environments and packaging for the videogame Ico for the PlayStation 2 and the novelist V.S. Naipaul borrowed the title of one of De Chirico’s paintings, The Enigma of Arrival (1911-12), for his 1987 novel.

Adapted by James J. Boitano, PhD from:
“Giorgio de Chirico: Italian Painter.” Encyclopedia Britannica website, November 15, 2022;
“Giorgio de Chirico.” website;
“Giorgio de Chirico.” website;
“Giorgio de Chirico.” Wikipedia website;
“Giorgio de Chirico.” website;
Lamb, Bill. “Biography of Giorgio de Chirico, Italian Pioneer of Surrealist Art.” website, January 31, 2020.

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