Giorgio de Chirico: An Enduring Enigma

A modern pioneer, Greek-Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico seduced viewers with his dreamlike spectacles, a style now world-renowned as Metaphysical Painting.

Mar 31, 2020By Christina Elia, BA Art History
Self-portrait, Giorgio de Chirico, 1922
Self-portrait, Giorgio de Chirico, 1922


Mysterious melancholy envelops Giorgio de Chirico’s pictorial realm. The painter’s mythological landscapes exhibit artificial realities centered on wistfulness, alienation, and dejection. His personal life personified a similar sense of secrecy.


Giorgio de Chirico’s Early Life

Raised in Greece by Italian parents, Giorgio de Chirico experienced a chaotic cultural upbringing. His family had been forced to flee Volos due to ongoing war with Turkey, and his father died shortly after this displacement. Ultimately, he moved through Tuscany, and then onto Munich, where he pursued his artistic studies.


Giorgio de Chirico, Irving Penn, 1944, The Morgan Museum and Library
Giorgio de Chirico, Irving Penn, 1944, The Morgan Museum and Library


De Chirico turned to his craft for solace during these trying times, devising daydreams reminiscent of his mental manifestations. While recalling his nomadic boyhood in his memoir, he credited his childhood art teacher for helping him “wander into a world of fantasy” with an “extraordinary magic pencil.” These phantasmagorical principles followed him into adulthood.


Metaphysical Painting

The Uncertainty of the Poet, Giorgio de Chirico, 1913
The Uncertainty of the Poet, Giorgio de Chirico, 1913, via Tate


De Chirico’s career blossomed in Paris salons after befriending influential art critic Guilliame Apollinaire. He had moved to the French capital following his brother Andrea de Chirico, who eventually became a famous musical composer. As Paris underwent a major artistic upheaval in the early 20th-century, artists like Pablo Picasso popularized Synthetic Cubism and others, like Wassily Kandinsky, took steps toward total abstraction. Still, de Chirico had a minor interest in France’s ever-evolving ambiance, instead overcome with feelings of isolation, homesickness, and despair.

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To combat his depression, he developed a style labeled as Metaphysical Painting (1910-1917), which aimed to answer cryptic questions: Are experiences concrete? Can feelings manifest? What exists beyond the observable universe? Arguably his most famous works to date, de Chirico’s eerie cityscapes use simple brush strokes and somber hues of beige, gray, and black to convey complex emotions regarding the 20th-century’s tumultuous shift toward modernization. Seemingly arbitrary symbols float aimlessly through his caliginous compositions.


The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon, 1910

Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon, Giorgio de Chirico, 1910
Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon, Giorgio de Chirico, 1910


The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon is Giorgio de Chirico’s earliest Metaphysical painting. The first in his Metaphysical Town Square Series, here the artist introduces pivotal motifs repeated throughout his body of work. Two cloaked figures stroll beside a statue of Dante in an otherwise deserted Italian piazza (square), flanked by de Chirico’s trademark facade. A singular sailboat looms in the distance, referencing his adolescence near a local Greek harbor.

Autumn Afternoon’s haunting effect doesn’t emerge from literal depictions, but rather its atmospheric mood, borrowing from the German term die Stimmung. Nihilistic philosophers like Friedrich Nietzche contributed to Giorgio de Chirico’s artistic process. Imbued with his daily sentimental saga, these Metaphysical paintings exude feelings of solitude, confusion, and nostalgia. Contemporary viewers pondered the meaning of existence through his infinitely vast compositions.


The Soothsayer’s Recompense, 1913

The Soothsayer’s Recompense, Giorgio de Chirico, 1913, Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Soothsayer’s Recompense, Giorgio de Chirico, 1913, Philadelphia Museum of Art


De Chirico believed traditional themes could coincide with modern motifs. His painting The Soothsayer’s Recompense epitomizes this ideology, as a statue of an ancient goddess Ariadne occupies the foreground and a factory locomotive, then considered a fairly recent invention, hovers in its background. According to a venerated Greek legend, Ariadne was abandoned by her lover on a desolate island, left to perish in her loneliness.

De Chirico evokes a similar sense of longing through his jarring juxtaposition of contemporary and Classical, solidified by his signature vacant city square. Spatial and temporal ambiguity define these geometricized forms, from de Chirico’s Renaissance-inspired linear perspective to his industrial smokestack. Uneasiness pervades his decided disparities.


The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, 1914

The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, Giorgio de Chirico, 1914
The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, Giorgio de Chirico, 1914, in the Museo Carlo Bilotti, Rome. 


The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street also exemplify Giorgio de Chirico’s puzzling personality. As its name may imply, much of the painting’s symbolism remains a conundrum.

Two Renaissance-style buildings entrap yet another secluded piazza, complete with contradictory vanishing points. In the foreground, a girl with a hoop drifts toward a statuesque figure lingering in the shadows, chasing the sun.

Though allegorically ambiguous, the objects represent de Chirico’s childhood, a personal flair found in many of his pieces. Adopting an occasionally formalist approach to his art, de Chirico believed straightforward shapes had the ability to convey countless emotions. Arcs could indicate uncertainty, for example, while a circle could signal anticipation. Common sense and human logic neutralized to enter a cosmos of juvenile wonder.


De Chirico’s Impact on Surrealism

The Song of Love, Giorgio de Chirico, 1914, The Museum of Modern Art
The Song of Love, Giorgio de Chirico, 1914, The Museum of Modern Art


Giorgio de Chirico’s psychological paintings inspired Europe’s next avant-garde movement. His positive reception in Paris can partly be attributed to his rapport with peers like Andre Breton and Max Ernst, who both heralded him as “Surrealist pioneer” nearly a decade later. Though de Chirico’s work isn’t technically Surrealism, his notion of poetic painting had a profound impact on artists such as Renee Magritte and Paul Delvaux, who believed art had the ability to channel unconscious desires, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.

For example, the first time Magritte ever saw The Song of Love, he broke out in tears, later claiming it was the most emotional moment of his life. De Chirico’s illustrative style also helped bridge the gap between Surrealism’s aesthetic and philosophical tenets, in addition to inspiring its stark visual contrast. He temporarily joined the group later in life.


The Revival of Classicism

Gladiator and Lion, Giorgio de Chirico, 1927, WikiArt
Gladiator and Lion, Giorgio de Chirico, 1927, WikiArt


When de Chirico enlisted in the Italian army in 1915, he deployed to Ferrara, where he stayed stationed for the rest of his tour. Painting and frequenting institutions such as the Borghese Gallery, his aesthetic vocabulary began to draw heavily from Old Masters such as Peter Paul Rubens, Raphael, and Luca Signorelli.

De Chirico even went as far as to recreate famous paintings by said masters, adding his own touch to a lengthy art historical tradition. These Neo-Classical artworks stray away from the macabre creations supporters had come to expect from the mystic painter, instead indicative of his rejection of contemporary culture. De Chirico became a vehement opponent of modern art subsequent to his time in Italy.


De Chirico’s Neo-Baroque and Neoclassicism

Horses With Riders, Giorgio de Chirico, 1934, WikiArt
Horses With Riders, Giorgio de Chirico, 1934, WikiArt


Giorgio de Chirico continued to explore similar motifs throughout his life, though he did so in a Neo-Baroque or Neo-Classicist style. While both genres are grounded in a revival of the past, Neo-Baroque harkens back to 17th-century Baroque painting, a style infused with feelings of tension. Baroque painting juxtaposes contrasting forms and moody lighting to produce dramatic effects; Neo-Baroque simply refers to work that imitates the Baroque era but has not emerged from it.

NeoClassism, however, denotes a cultural movement born in Rome during the 18th-century. It draws inspiration from Classical antiquity, like Greek and Roman Mythology. De Chirico united both elements in his artwork.


Diana Sleep in the Woods, 1933

Diana Sleep in the Woods, Giorgio de Chirico, 1933, WikiArt
Diana Sleep in the Woods, Giorgio de Chirico, 1933, WikiArt


Paintings such as Diana Sleep in the Woods demonstrate this creative deviation. Here, a semi-nude woman reclines serenely across a patch of scorched earth, her watchful canine companion asleep in the background behind her. De Chirico alludes to mythological Renaissance paintings such as Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus and Titian’s Venus of Urbino incorporating metaphors that date back centuries.

In the foreground, grapes and pears cite influence from Dutch still life conventions, while the figure’s snoozing dog represents age-old virtues like fidelity. Yet, unlike his predecessors, de Chirico’s subject is sleepy and demure, her gaze diverted from the viewer. Aspects of his despondent past naturally bled through these newfound ventures.


Self Portrait in the Studio, Giorgio de Chirico, 1935, WikiArt
Self Portrait in the Studio, Giorgio de Chirico, 1935


De Chirico’s self-portraits present a particularly insightful glimpse at his developmental transition. The artist painted numerous self-portraits throughout his life, some stranger than others (such as his Self Portrait Nude (1945), where he’s depicted wearing a diaper.) A few offer an unparalleled peek of his systematic approach, like Self Portrait in the Studio (1935), where de Chirico portrays himself in the act of painting.

A deeply intimate look at his perplexing psyche, he locks eyes with the viewer as he continues to complete a sketch of a woman’s backside. Near his feet stands a Classical bust, referencing de Chirico’s past metaphysical paintings, as well as his Greek heritage. His increasing interest in his artistic perception has been ascribed to a prolonged period of introspection. Even far removed from his Metaphysical epoch, de Chirico still contemplated his role in an intricate universe.


De Chirico’s Return To Paris

Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure), Giorgio de Chirico, 1914, The Museum of Modern Art
Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure), Giorgio de Chirico, 1914, The Museum of Modern Art


De Chirico inevitably moved to Paris again, but his return received a lukewarm welcome. Surrealists who previously elevated him to fame scorned his new artistic genre, viewing his craftmanship as regression toward antediluvian dogmas. Tradition connotated tacky pastiche and respect for the institution contradicted modernism’s very foundation. In the eyes of the Surrealists, de Chirico betrayed the same school that energized his rise to stardom.

It’s clear de Chirico had grown tired of the Parisian avant-garde, too, as he’s even quoted as calling his contemporaries “cretinous and hostile.” Still, not all devotees turned against him. In 1927, former Surrealist Roger Vitrac published a monograph on de Chirico, attesting to his societal significance by claiming he’s “beyond criticism.” His Classical revival had nevertheless influenced new paradigms for fusing antiquity and modernity.


De Chirico’s Later Years

Rising Sun on the Plaza, Giorgio de Chirico, 1976, WikiArt
Rising Sun on the Plaza, Giorgio de Chirico, 1976, WikiArt


After marrying his second wife Isabella Pakszwer Far in 1930, de Chirico permanently returned to Italy, where he lived and worked for the remainder of his prolific career. He wrote essays examining art through a critical lens and even published his own memoir. Many of his later paintings displayed identical Neo-Baroque and Classical elements, however, the artist did somewhat return to his roots prior to his death.

One of his last works ever painted, Rising Sun on The Plaza, illustrates a landscape similar to his Metaphysical paintings, a familiar Italian town square. However, unlike his early pieces, the scene emanates warmth, explicit feelings of positivity. De Chirico’s thematic repetitions, like his Classical archways and marble statues, have been rendered with a childlike vivacity, bubbly and animated. The Italian sun shines sparklingly over a fading horizon.


De Chirico’s Legacy

Portrait of Giorgio de Chirico, by Carl Van Vechten, 1936, via Library of Congress
Portrait of Giorgio de Chirico, by Carl Van Vechten, 1936, via Library of Congress


Giorgio de Chirico left behind a labyrinthine legacy. Through tumultuous adoration, persistent critique, and firm fluctuation, the painter emerges as one of the most enigmatic in modern history, sparking bewilderment even today. His appeal stems from his increasingly obscure allure, his ability to pull heartstrings through subtle strategies, some even subconscious.

Combined with a tendency to revise and backdate his own paintings, not much else has been ascertained about the artist since his passing, which only further adds to his charm.

Evidently, Giorgio de Chirico himself put it best when he divulged “there’s more mystery in the shadow of a man walking on a sunny day, than in all religions in the world.”

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By Christina EliaBA Art HistoryChristina Elia is a contributing writer whose work focuses on the intersection between visual culture and language. She was born and raised in New York City, where she currently writes about topics ranging from creative nonfiction to street art, culture, and travel. Christina’s work has been published in online publications such as The Odyssey, Select City, CURA, and has appeared in print in The Tishman Review and UP.