Giuseppe Maria Alberto Giorgio de Chirico was an Italian artist and writer born in Greece. In the years before World War I, he founded the scuola metafisica art movement, which profoundly influenced the surrealists. His best-known works often feature Roman arcades, long shadows, mannequins, trains, and illogical perspective. His imagery reflects his affinity for the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer and of Friedrich Nietzsche, and for the mythology of his birthplace.
After 1919, he became a critic of modern art, studied traditional painting techniques, and worked in a neoclassical or neo-Baroque style, while frequently revisiting the metaphysical themes of his earlier work.
Giuseppe Maria Alberto Giorgio de Chirico was born in Volos, Greece, as the eldest son of Gemma Cervetto and Evaristo de Chirico. His mother was a baroness of Genoese and Greek origins (likely born in Smyrna) and his father a Sicilian barone born in Florence from a family of Greek descent (the Kyriko or Chirico family was of Greek origin, having moved from Rhodes to Palermo in 1523 together with 4,000 other Greek Catholic families, and its members had almost completely moved to Tuscany in the early 17th century). De Chirico's family was in Greece at the time of his birth because his father, an engineer, was in charge of the construction of a railroad. His younger brother, Andrea Francesco Alberto, became a famous writer, painter and composer under the pseudonym Alberto Savinio.
Beginning in 1900, de Chirico studied drawing and painting at Athens Polytechnic — mainly under the guidance of the Greek painters Georgios Roilos and Georgios Jakobides. After Evaristo de Chirico's death in 1905, the family relocated in 1906 to Germany, after first visiting Florence. De Chirico entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, where he studied under Gabriel von Hackl and Carl von Marr and read the writings of the philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer and Otto Weininger. There, he also studied the works of Arnold Böcklin and Max Klinger. The style of his earliest paintings, such as The Dying Centaur (1909), shows the influence of Böcklin.
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, after the revelation he felt in Piazza Santa Croce. He also painted The Enigma of the Oracle while in Florence. In July 1911 he spent a few days in Turin on his way to Paris. De Chirico was profoundly moved by what he called the 'metaphysical aspect' of Turin, especially the architecture of its archways and piazzas.
The paintings de Chirico produced between 1909 and 1919, his metaphysical period, are characterized by haunted, brooding moods evoked by their images. 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.
De Chirico's conception of Metaphysical art was strongly influenced by his reading of Nietzsche, whose style of writing fascinated de Chirico with its suggestions of unseen auguries beneath the appearance of things. De Chirico found inspiration in the unexpected sensations that familiar places or things sometimes produced in him: In a manuscript of 1909 he wrote of the "host of strange, unknown and solitary things that can be translated into painting ... What is required above all is a pronounced sensitivity." 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. Among de Chirico's most frequent motifs were arcades, of which he wrote: "The Roman arcade is fate ... its voice speaks in riddles which are filled with a peculiarly Roman poetry".
De Chirico moved to Paris in July 1911, where he joined his brother Andrea. Through his brother he met Pierre Laprade, a member of the jury at the Salon d'Automne, where he exhibited three of his works: Enigma of the Oracle, Enigma of an Afternoon and Self-Portrait. During 1913 he exhibited paintings at the Salon des Indépendants and Salon d’Automne; his work was noticed by Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire, and he sold his first painting, The Red Tower. His time in Paris also resulted in the production of de Chirico's Ariadne. In 1914, through Apollinaire, he met the art dealer Paul Guillaume, with whom he signed a contract for his artistic output.
At the outbreak of World War I, he returned to Italy. Upon his arrival in May 1915, he enlisted in the army, but he was considered unfit for work and assigned to the hospital at Ferrara. The shop windows of that town inspired a series of paintings that feature biscuits, maps, and geometric constructions in indoor settings. In Ferrara he met with Carlo Carrà and together they founded the pittura metafisica movement. He continued to paint, and in 1918, he transferred to Rome. Starting from 1918, his work was exhibited extensively in Europe.
In November 1919, de Chirico published an article in Valori plastici entitled "The Return of Craftsmanship", in which he advocated a return to traditional methods and iconography. This article heralded an abrupt change in his artistic orientation, as he adopted a classicizing manner inspired by such old masters as Raphael and Signorelli, and became part of the post-war return to order in the arts. He became an outspoken opponent of modern art.
In the early 1920s, the Surrealist writer André Breton discovered one of de Chirico's metaphysical paintings on display in Guillaume's Paris gallery, and was enthralled. Numerous young artists who were similarly affected by de Chirico's imagery became the core of the Paris Surrealist group centered around Breton. In 1924 de Chirico visited Paris and was accepted into the group, although the surrealists were severely critical of his post-metaphysical work.
De Chirico met and married his first wife, the Russian ballerina Raissa Gurievich (1894-1979) in 1925, and together they moved to Paris. His relationship with the Surrealists grew increasingly contentious, as they publicly disparaged his new work; by 1926 he had come to regard them as "cretinous and hostile". They soon parted ways in acrimony. In 1928 he held his first exhibition in New York City and shortly afterwards, London. He wrote essays on art and other subjects, and in 1929 published a novel entitled Hebdomeros, the Metaphysician. Also in 1929, he made stage designs for Sergei Diaghilev.
In 1930, de Chirico met his second wife, Isabella Pakszwer Far (1909–1990), a Russian, with whom he would remain for the rest of his life. Together they moved to Italy in 1932 and to the US in 1936, finally settling in Rome in 1944. In 1948 he bought a house near the Spanish Steps; now the Giorgio de Chirico House Museum, a museum dedicated to his work.
In 1939, he adopted a neo-Baroque style influenced by Rubens. This artistic phase, which lasted until the late 60s, is sometimes referred to as the ‘Baroque season’. During this time, de Chirico draws inspiration from artists such as Tintoretto, Dürer, Raphael, Delacroix and Renoir. The artist, far from willing to achieve realism in his paintings, strives to create images charged with myths and visions, for an art that is still literally “metaphysical”, beyond reality. During these years, De Chirico also studied and rediscovered the painting techniques adopted by old masters, such as Titian: “So I started doing copies of the old masters. In Rome… in Florence… and then I also got interested in their techniques, I consulted numerous treatises on painting, both ancient and modern.”
De Chirico's later paintings never received the same critical praise as did those from his metaphysical period. He resented this, as he thought his later work was better and more mature. He nevertheless produced backdated "self-forgeries" both to profit from his earlier success, and as an act of revenge—retribution for the critical preference for his early work. He also denounced many paintings attributed to him in public and private collections as forgeries. In 1945, he published his memoirs.
He remained extremely prolific even as he approached his 90th year. During the 1960s, Massimiliano Fuksas worked in his atelier. In 1974 de Chirico was elected to the French Académie des Beaux-Arts. He died in Rome on 20 November 1978. In 1992 his remains were moved to the Roman church of San Francesco a Ripa.