Alessandro was the son of the successful Genoese painter Stefano Magnasco. Orphaned at a young age, he was sent to Milan to train with the artist Filippo Abbiati. Although Genoese by birth, this early training in Milan meant that Alessandro's style developed in a different direction to that of his contemporaries in Genoa, and owed more to the dramatic Lombard tradition, notably the work of Francesco Cairo and Giovanni Battista Crespi, il Cerano. He developed a highly idiosyncratic – and eminently recognisable – style, characterised by energetic brushstrokes and a pronounced chairoscuro. Towards the end of the century he was painting his first genre scenes, as well as executing figures in the landscapes of Antonio Francesco Peruzzini, Clemente Spera and other paesaggisti. Between 1703 and 1709 he was active with Peruzzini at the court of Ferdinando dei Medici in Tuscany. The court was one of the most intellectually advanced in the peninsula and this proved to be a significant period in his development. In the prince's collection Magnasco was able to study a vast group of Dutch and Flemish genre paintings at first hand.
After returning to Milan around 1709, he continued collaborating with Spera and Peruzzini, and supplying paintings to the Lombard aristocracy. Milanese families such as the Archinto, the Borromeo and the Visconti, among others, were at the vanguard of the Italian Enlightenment. Magnasco's links with such circles and his interest in these social and literary debates can be seen in his paintings, which alternate between subtle irony and critical satire. This picture likely dates to the early eighteenth century, perhaps after his return to Milan. It shows a cantastorie, or 'story singer', who points to a banner, beside a portable altar that holds a statue of Saint Anthony of Padua. Peasants kneel before it to pray, whilst a man, seated in the centre, plays a theorbo, providing accompaniment to the storyteller. A reduced variant, showing only the central part of the composition with the figures in a similar arrangement, was sold at Sotheby’s, London, 24 April 2008, lot 88 (£120,500), whilst the same cantastorie and portable altar, with comparable arched ruins in the background, feature in another work formerly with Canesso, Paris (L. Muti and D. De Sarno Prignano, Alessandro Magnasco, 1994, p. 238). The latter is also of similar dimensions, and could perhaps be a pendant to the picture offered here.