Alessandro Magnasco was born in 1667 in Genoa to the moderately successful painter Stefano (c. 1635-c. 1672). After his father died prematurely, Alessandro was sent to Milan to learn commerce. Instead, Alessandro induced his Milanese patron to cover the expenses of an apprenticeship with the esteemed painter Filippo Abbiati (1640-1715), probably around 1680. By the 1690s, the young Magnasco had completed his training and established himself as a portrait painter. He was known as Lissandrino in his own time.
This phase of his career must have been short-lived, however, because already by 1695, the date of his first signed work, Meeting of Quakers, Magnasco was painting scenes from contemporary life. Magnasco's subjects and his lively, almost burlesque, figures owe much to the prints of Jacques Callot (1592-1635) and Stefano Della Bella (1610-1664). Like them, Magnasco began creating scenes that defy easy classification as either history paintings or genre, with smaller figures set in lush landscapes, lavish or spare interiors, as well as in classical ruins.
Magnasco also began to collaborate with painters of landscapes and ruins, as indicated by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century inventories that include his works and specify joint attributions. Throughout his career in Milan and Florence (1690s- c. 1735) Magnasco worked with the landscapist Giovanni Antonio Peruzzini from Ancona (1668- c. 1725), as well as with Crescenzio Onofri and Marco Ricci (1676-1729), among others. Additionally, Magnasco collaborated with Clemente Spera (late 17th century-c. 1730), a specialist in architectural ruins.
Magnasco's artistic formation seems to depend on Lombard traditions, particularly those embodied by his teacher, Abbiati. He also appears to have assimilated the compositional and coloristic idiosyncracies of Valerio Castello (1624-1659) and Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-1664). The means by which Magnasco actually came to know their works is contested. Whereas it is known that Magnasco always maintained contacts with Genoa, there is no firm evidence that he travelled there prior to his permanent return around 1735.
Magnasco received important commissions in Milan from Giovanni Francesco Arese (who owned at least twenty-two of Magnasco's paintings) and other prominent families. The Milanese enjoyed Magnasco's unusual subjects, which highlighted both issues of social reform and contemporary social ills. Included among these were scenes of catechism, monastic life, ceremonies and rituals of Jewish and protestant sects, brigands or beggars, the treatment of prisoners, and ceremonies of witches and devils. In the first decade of the eighteenth century Magnasco moved to Florence, where he was an intimate of Grand Prince Ferdinando and his court. The Medici circle, in fact, provided the majority of his commissions. When Magnasco returned to Milan around 1709, his success continued with distinguished requests from the Austrian governor (1719-1725), Gerolamo di Colloredo, for a series of paintings concerning life among the capuchins and other religious sects.
Returning to Genoa around 1735, however, Magnasco found that the concerns of cultivated Milanese and Florentine aristocrats, those who sympathized with the religious reformers and the writers of picaresque novels, were not shared by patrons in his native city. During the last decade and a half of his life (1735-1749), Magnasco's style--which, Ratti writes, was condemned as "worthless" and "ridiculous"--and subject matter encountered a resistant audience in Genoa. Nonetheless, Magnasco continued to paint until an advanced age [perhaps for Lombard clients] and held forth with students and amateurs even when he was no longer able to wield his brushes. Although Magnasco had collaborators and assistants throughout his career, there were few real students who carried on his stylistic or iconographic innovations after his death in Genoa in 1749. Among the artists identified as followers of Magnasco are Ciccio Napoletano and Coppa Milanese, about whom little is known. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Ratti, Carlo Giuseppe and Raffaele Soprani. Le vite de'pittori, scultori ed architetti genovesi. 2 vols. Genoa, 1769: 2:155-162.
De Grazia, Diane, and Eric Garberson, with Edgar Peters Bowron, Peter M. Lukehart, and Mitchell Merling. Italian Paintings of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 177-178.