A classicist, pioneer, and painter. Giorgio de Chirico was one of the best traditional artists of the early 20th century. His art was heavily inspired by the Renaissance and Neoclassicism. Thus, his works most commonly depict metaphysical themes, mythological narratives and allegories.
Giorgio de Chirico was best known for founding the School of Metaphysical Painting right after the World War I ended. His pioneering efforts to modernize art cemented his reputation in the field and became a source of inspiration for many younger painters, especially the Surrealists. In fact, Surrealism’s formidable theorist, Andre Breton, did recognize de Chirico’s contributions as key to the development of the said art movement.
For many of his contemporaries, de Chirico spearheaded the rebirth of Classicism post World War I. Some biographers believe that this was encouraged by spending his childhood days in Greece while being raised by Italian parents. The family moved to Paris in 1910 and the young de Chirico longed for his homeland so much so that in his early works, his paintings depicted empty town centers. This eventually paved the way to the foundation of his own Metaphysical art movement.
However, as with many others, the Greek-born painter also had also suffered a decline in his career. During his later years, he failed to go back to his old ways of capturing the distinct aspects of his early works that made him unique and original among his contemporaries. Nevertheless, he had left a significant impact on the Surrealists and other 20th century artists, making his legacy arguably worthy of continuation.
Some examples of his important works included The Red Tower (1913), Love Song (1914), The Disquieting Muses (1947), The Nostalgia of the Poet (1914), Ariadne (1913), Interno Metafisico (1970), Il Segreto della Fontana (1971), Bather Sitting (1931), and Piazza d’Italia (1970).
Giorgio de Chirico was born in July 10, 1888 in Volos, Greece. He was raised by a Sicilian father and a Genovese mother, and they enrolled him in an art school in Athens. He was subjected under the tutelage of famous Greek painters Georgios Jakobides and Georgios Roilos. In 1906 his family moved to Munich, Germany in an attempt to move on from the death of his father in 1905.
In Munich, he studied at the premier Academy of Fine Arts. There he took the chance to study the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Klinger, and Otto Weininger. After completing his art courses he moved to Milan, Italy by 1909 and spent the next six months there. But within those months his career would prove to be somewhat dormant as he only began painting in 1910. On that year he had already been to Florence where he was inspired to paint the Metaphysical Town Square. The said painting expressed his feeling of loneliness thinking about his homeland.
In 1911 De Chirico traveled to Turin and en route to Paris eventually, during which he executed a painting that would describe the metaphysical aspect of Turin based on its piazzas and entranceways. On that same year he went to Paris to meet his sibling, Andrea. Through his brother he was introduced to Pierre Laprade, a panel member to the Salon d’Automne.
De Chirico’s introduction to Laprade opened a door of opportunity to exhibit at the Salon in 1912. He submitted three of his earliest works Enigma of an Afternoon, Self-Portrait, and the Enigma of the Oracle. The following year he produced the Red Tower, the first painting that truly made him famous. In 1914 Paul Guillaume, a wealth art dealer, contracted De Chirico but would be cut short due to the outbreak of the WWI.
During the Great War he volunteered himself to join the military in Italy. However, he was deemed unhealthy to work in a hostile environment so he was designated to be a staff member at a hospital in Ferrara instead. This kind of service allowed him to paint in between, but even though he was spared from battling in the front, the artist still suffered from a nervous breakdown in 1917.
After recovering from the said mental disorder, De Chirico met Carlo Carra. Together, they established the first Metaphysical School of Painting in Italy. It is said that De Chirico’s penchant for poetry and imagery in painting began when he exposed himself to the writings of German philosophers and German expressionist painters. From then on, he rejected the principles of naturalism and paid much more attention to combining poetry and painting; hence, having his own Metaphysical art movement.
The said art movement was founded with a goal to rationalizing the artistic views of De Chirico he developed from 1910 to 1911. Although the movement had only lasted for a short number of years, it left a significant mark on the artist’s overall development, through which he realized that he wanted poetic painting to thrive. This concept then had a profound influence on Surrealist artists like Max Ernst, Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dali, Paul Delvaux, and Rene Magritte. Subsequently, Surrealism became the dominating art movement during the late 1920’s, and this put the nail on the coffin in terms of De Chirico’s solid reputation.
In 1919, Giorgio De Chirico went to Rome and became focused on pictorial painting and technique over dedicating himself to metaphysical art. This inspired him to publish The Return of Craftsmanship in an attempt to revive the Renaissance during his generation. In the book he particularly advocated the return of iconography and traditional painting methods inspired by Signorelli and Raphael. As the modern times had been about breaking free from the rigid traditional, naturalist painting practices, De Chirico was essentially opposed to modern art.
The Greek-born painter adopted the classicist manner of his favorite Renaissance masters. His views on this are clearly seen on The Disquieting Muses, a considered masterpiece. It was executed during the World War I when he was designated at Ferrara. In the painting the Castello Estense was in the background and the Muses are in the foreground. The muses are depicted wearing traditional clothing, one of which is sitting and the other two are standing. They are also placed among different objects such as a staff and a red mask which art theorists believe are Chirico’s allusion to Thalia and Melpomene. One of the statues placed on a pedestal is the Muses’ leader, Apollo.
During this period, it is said that De Chirico’s craftsmanship declined presumably because he became an opponent of the 20th century art with his attempt to revive the classics. Another factor was the fact that the only made pastiches of the Old Masters’ paintings, which were quite unappealing to the taste of the audience at the time. In 1924 he married Raissa Gurievich, a Russian ballet dancer. The couple transferred to Paris and stayed over there for a few years.
In 1928, Giorgio de Chirico’s career was thriving again. Thanks to the influence that the Surrealists picked up on, he was able to hold his first one-man art show in New York and London. He became popular among the Surrealist artists in Europe, which encouraged him to write scholarly articles about his pictorial and poetic art. In 1929 he attempted to go back to metaphysical art through painting and writing Hebdomeros, a novel.
In 1930 he met Isabella Pakszwer Far, who would become his second wife. Together with Far, de Chirico went back to Italy in 1932 and would stay there until the last days of his life. In 1944 they finally decided to settle down in Rome and then four years later, de Chirico would be able to buy a property near the so-called Spanish Steps. This property would serve as a museum for his works after his death.
During this period, De Chirico’s painting style somewhat changed from early Renaissance to neo-Baroque, much to the influence of Rubens. However, his later paintings failed to capture the interest of his critics, and thus receiving subpar accolades and praises compared to what he received during pre-World War I. This made him feel bad because he presumed that his later works would be more mature.
In the 1960’s, De Chirico experimented with other art medium. He produced small-size sculptures in bronze inspired by his early works such as the mannequins he painted when he was staying in Ferrara. Throughout the last decade of his career he sold pastiches of his original works from the Metaphysical period yet he did not reveal that those paintings were fake copies. Art historians believe that this was the artist’s way of taking revenge on his critics and to profit from his early success. Nevertheless, De Chirico was still elected as a member of the premier Academy of Fine Arts in France.
During his old age, Giorgio De Chirico remained a virtuoso of his art. He died on November 20, 1978 in Rome at the age of 90. His legacy would be continued by Yves Tanguy, who absorbed his painting techniques and styles faithfully. In fact, Tanguy claimed that Chirico was the sole artist who has inspired him to paint in the first place after seeing the works.
Other artists who genuinely looked up to Chirico’s art were Giorgio Morandi and Carlo Carra. Morandi would become another formidable figure of Metaphysical art. Today, De Chirico’s works are available on display at various museums and galleries such as the Tate Collection London, Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, and The Museum of Modern Art New York.