Giorgio de Chirico
Biography of Surrealist Artist, Founder of Metaphysical Painting.

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Mystery and Melancholy of a Street
(1914) Private Collection.

Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978)


Early Life
Early Paintings
Metaphysical School of Painting (La Scuola Metafisica)
Returns to Renaissance Craftsmanship
Later Paintings
Reputation and Legacy

Paintings by Giorgio de Chirico
are widely available online
in the form of poster art.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest view painters, see:
Best Landcape Artists.
For the greatest genre-painting, see:
Best Genre Painters.

For the best works, see:
Greatest Modern Paintings.

For an explanation of the
terminology, see:
Art: Definition and Meaning.


One of the key modern artists, the influential Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico co-founded the school of Metaphysical Painting ("la scuola metafisica") along with Carlo Carra, just after the First World War, and his haunting paintings of deserted Italianate squares had a huge impact on modern art in the 1920s, notably Surrealism - whose leading theorist Andre Breton acknowledged De Chirico's position as the movement's essential pioneer - as well as Magic Realism. Although his later works failed to recapture the unsettling originality of his early paintings, De Chirico's reputation as an important influence on Surrealist artists, as well as on modern art of the 20th-century remains undeniable. Famous paintings by De Chirico include: The Uncertainty of the Poet (1913, Tate Collection, London), The Red Tower (1913, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice), The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914, Private Collection), The Song of Love (1914, MOMA, New York), Metaphysical Interior with Large Factory (1916, Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart) and The Disquieting Muses (1917, Gianni Mattioli Collection, Milan).

Early Life

Born in Vola, Greece, to a Sicilian father and Genovese mother, he began studying art in Athens in 1900. In 1906 his parents moved to Munich, where de Chirico enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts and came under the influence of 19th-century German philosophers, such as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, as well as works of 19th century German art by the symbolist painter Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901) and nightmarish etchings by Max Klinger (1857-1920). This encouraged him to reject naturalism and to concentrate instead on poetic, imaginary, and visionary subjects. In 1909, the family moved to Milan where de Chirico painted mythological scenes closely based on work by Bocklin.

Early Paintings

De Chirico's first characteristic works date from 1910-11. Subject to illness and depression, haunted by the writings of Nietzsche and by nostalgic recollections of Greece and Italy, and a prey to hallucinatory revelations, de Chirico began portraying a mysterious and troubling world which was for him as real as the banal world of everyday life. Leaving Milan in early 1910, he moved to Florence where he completed the first of his "Metaphysical Town Square" series, The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon, following a revelation he experienced in Piazza Santa Croce. Another Florentine work was The Enigma of the Oracle. Leaving Florence in the summer of 1911, he travelled to Paris, spending a few days in Turin, the city of Nietzsche, whose arcaded buildings, statues, and desolate squares affected him deeply.


Arriving in the French capital in July 1911, he joined his brother Andrea De Chirico who introduced him to Pierre Laprade, a member of the selection-jury at the Salon d'Automne, where he showed his paintings - Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon (1910), Enigma of the Oracle (1910), and also Self-Portrait (1911). In 1913 he exhibited works at both the Salon d'Automne and the Salon des Independants which were noticed by Pablo Picasso as well as the influential art critic Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918).

All this led to his first sale - that of his painting The Red Tower (1913; Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice). In this (and other) work, De Chirico created an unsettling sense of enigma in images of trance-like stillness and silence. The period of time is ambiguous, the space impossibly deep, and the linear perspective inconsistent; and objects are irrationally juxtaposed, The strangeness is heightened by the almost naive lucidity of his style. Sometimes spatially agoraphobic, sometimes claustrophobic, these paintings, with their looming statues and shadows, are full of tension and menace. They suggest, through an apparently unconscious symbolism of towers, arcades, and trains, feelings of panic and frustration. The following year, in 1914, thanks to Guillaume Apollinaire, he agreed a contract with the art dealer Paul Guillaume.

Metaphysical School of Painting (La Scuola Metafisica)

On the outbreak of World War I, De Chirico returned to Italy and was drafted into the army. Due to his poor physical condition he was assigned to the miliary hospital at Ferrara, where he continued his painting. His work by now showed a debt to Cubism in the shallowness of the pictorial space, the use of collage, and its imagery of abstracted mathematical instruments.

In January 1917, following a nervous breakdown, he met the Italian painter Carlo Carra (1881-1966) and together they founded the Metaphysical School of Painting (La Scuola Metafisica), whose principles (outlined in Carra's book Pittura Metafisica, 1919) consisted of a rationalization of the artistic aims De Chirico had held since 1910-11. Although short-lived - the pair quarrelled and separated in 1919 - the movement helped to draw attention to De Chirico's concept of poetic painting, which was to have a profound effect on such Surrealist artists as Salvador Dali (1904-89), Max Ernst (1891-1976), Rene Magritte (1898-1967), Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) and Yves Tanguy (1900-55). Indeed, it was during the late 1920s, when Surrealism began to dominate the art world of the inter-war years, that De Chirico's international reputation was established, although chiefly for his pre-1920 output.

Returns to Renaissance Craftsmanship

After 1917, when he painted masterpieces like The Disquieting Muses, (Gianni Mattioli Collection, Milan), de Chirico's work declined, although he created a body of remarkable still life painting and portrait-art in 1919, and his work began to be exhibited extensively in Europe. In 1919, he moved to Rome, turned his back on Metaphysical imagery, and became increasingly concerned with questions of pictorial technique. That autumn he wrote an article in Valori Plastici entitled "The Return of Craftsmanship", which proposed a return to traditional methods and iconography in the style of Old Masters like Raphael and Signorelli, and became a vociferous opponent of modern art. From this time onwards, whenever he did return to his early manner, it was to make copies or pastiches.

In 1924, De Chirico married his first wife, the Russian ballerina Raissa Gurievich, and relocated to Paris. In 1928, his reputation buoyed by plaudits from the Surrealists, he had his first solo exhibition in New York and shortly afterwards, London. He wrote essays on art and other subjects, and in 1929 briefly recaptured the visionary intensity of his early metaphysical work in his extraordinary novel Hebdomeros. The following year he got together with Isabella Pakszwer Far, his second wife, with whom he returned to Italy where they remained together for the rest of his long life.

Later Paintings

De Chirico continued painting in a range of differing classical styles (including a type of Neo-Baroque) for nearly five decades, until his death in Rome at the age of 89, but these works never received the same acclaim as those from his pre-1920 metaphysical period: a situation he deeply resented, as he judged his later work to be far superior. In 1974, four years before he died, he was elected a member of the French Academy of Fine Arts.

Reputation and Legacy

De Chirico's metaphysical art had a major impact on contemporary and later painters, notably the French-born artist Yves Tanguy (1900-55), who claimed to have started painting in 1923 after seeing a De Chirico painting in a gallery window, despite never having held a brush. Other painters who acknowledged a debt to De Chirico include the Italians Carlo Carra, and Giorgio Morandi, the abstract expressionist Philip Guston and the surrealist artists, Max Ernst, Salvador Dali, and Rene Magritte.


Now see as one of the great 20th century painters, Giorgio De Chirico's works hang in several of the world's best art museums, notably the Tate Collection London, the Museum of Modern art New York, and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice. His pictures are also represented in a number of prestigious private collections.

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