The Trouble with De Chirico:
Verifalsi and the Study of Backdated Paintings
Giorgio de Chirico is one of the most renowned and celebrated Italian artists of the modern period, but his work remains controversial today. His provocative practice of copying and backdating his later works to his Metaphysical period (1910 – 19) complicates the way his work and oeuvre are viewed by scholars, dealers, and the public at large. Despite the brevity of the period, de Chirico’s limited production of works during this time, and his long-spanning career afterwards, he is usually only remembered for his paintings of the Metaphysical style.
This serial practice began with the Disquieting Muses affair of 1924, when de Chirico made a copy of his painting, Le muse inquietanti, painted in 1918 and currently on view at the Center for Italian Modern Art (CIMA). By the mid-1920s there were only a few Metaphysical paintings by de Chirico on the market. He had begun to create works of dramatically different styles in the 1920s, as seen in CIMA’s current exhibition. This original version of Le muse inquietanti from 1918 was in the possession of the art historian and critic, Giorgio Castelfranco. The Surrealist poet Paul Éluard and his wife Gala wished to purchase it, but Castelfranco was not interested in selling it for the offered price. So the Éluards approached de Chirico hoping to purchase another Metaphysical work. Instead De Chirico offered to make a copy of his earlier work for a small fee, terming these reproductions verifalsi. The term verifalsi translates roughly to “true-fakes” and describes works that are painted by the same artist imitating the style and sometimes the subject of earlier works.
These verifalsi came to be standard practice for de Chirico. He created numerous copies of Le muse inquietanti as well as other Metaphysical works, including Hector and Andromache, Piazza d’Italia, and various Metaphysical Interiors in subsequent years, though none was an exact replica of the original. Many of these works were backdated to the 1910s, which further confused the sale and study of de Chirico paintings. Moreover, the Surrealists created some of their own de Chirico replicas, forged by artists like Óscar Domínguez, Max Ernst, and Remedios Varo. Despite bearing de Chirico-like signatures, it is usually possible to identify these works as forgeries, due to changes in style and technique. Differentiating between the backdated verifalsi and the Metaphysical originals, on the other hand, can be much more trying. Experts of de Chirico identify misdated works primarily on the basis of stylistic grounds—as their palette, paint handling, modeling are consistent with works from his later period and are absolutely inconsistent with works from the 1910s. Yet, at times, scientific analysis of the painting—including but not limited to X-radiography and paint analysis—remains the only solution to determining the dating of these works.
Though it is likely that the creation of the verifalsi was—at least in part—de Chirico’s attempt to confuse the art market that rejected his later work, there are numerous theories surrounding their production. While some scholars see the verifalsi as a rejection of modernist conventions in favor of the kitsch, others see them as a radical critique of time created through the repurposing of pictorial language. In any case, his serial practice came to be celebrated by artists and scholars alike in the postmodern period, and researchers of de Chirico are left wrestling with a multitude of works spread throughout private and public collections in various countries, many misdated and lacking clear provenance.
The breadth and disparity of de Chirico’s works make comparative analysis challenging, as oftentimes scholars must rely on reproductions in order to compare and contrast works. Herein lies the problem with de Chirico’s verifalsi: they get confused. Not only are these works sometimes misattributed and misdated, but also—without access to the work first hand—scholars and collectors have had trouble differentiating two similar verifalsi and therefore conflate provenance/identification of two separate paintings. The “slow art” model at CIMA offers one possible solution to this problem, as fellows like myself get to spend long periods of times with these works rather than looking to their digital or printed reproductions. For example, in my own research on de Chirico’s verifalsi, I am attempting to track down a Hector and Andromache painting—dated to 1916 but likely from the early 1950s—whose whereabouts are currently unknown. As I only posses a fractured provenance of the work and a photographic reproduction, I must look through de Chirico archives and catalogues using comparative analysis to differentiate this work from other Hector and Andromache paintings. Although the Hector and Andromache of 1917 currently on view at CIMA is not the subject of my research, my continued close looking at this work has helped me to differentiate between often-misattributed reproductions. Not only I am able to readily recognize this 1917 version whenever I come across it, but I am able to better distinguish paintings of this subject that date to the Metaphysical period from later verifalsi. By closely looking at these works, it becomes easier to differentiate one verifalsi from the next and also leads to a greater understanding of the details and variants employed in de Chirico’s serial paintings.