“It is not possible to capture the art of Jean-Pierre Alexandre Antigna in its most fertile and intimate sense without taking into account how much the living conditions - hence the social and family structures- changed during the first half of the 19th century”. (David Ojalvo, Jean-Pierre Alexandre Antigna, exh. cat., Orléans, 1978, n.p.).
A close study of Antigna’s paintings is like looking at snippets of France’s social transformation and challenges. A first-generation Realist painter, a “prophet” according to David Ojvalo, who organized the largest retrospective on the artist in 1978, Antigna has earned his place among the French masters of the 19th century.
After preliminary training in his native Orléans, Antigna was admitted to the École des beaux-arts in 1837. He first studied with Sébastien Norblin before joining Paul Delaroche’s studio, where he would stay for the next seven years. From his studies with Delaroche, Antigna inherited a penchant for large-scale canvases and drama. As opposed to Delaroche’s sensational depictions of French and English history, Antigna instead chose to represent contemporary tragedies of the working class. From 1841, he exhibited at the Salon, where he achieved some degree of success, earning medals and State commissions. His representations of the poor in sobering circumstances are best remembered through his masterpiece, Incendie (Musée des beaux-arts, Orléans), his contribution to the Salon of 1850. In Incendie, Antigna captured the anguish and desperation of a family trapped in a fire, a scene which underscored the unsafe living conditions of the working class at the time.
Following his trips to Britany in 1857 and then Spain in 1863, Antigna shifted from harrowing realism to a more nuanced and pleasant naturalism. He almost renounced large formats and his palette became brighter and more colorful. In the 1860s, he turned to representations of anecdotical genre scenes -- sometimes overly sentimental--, and painted portraits of children and women. In 1861, he was made Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.
The mid-1860s introduced yet another style which was imbued with mysticism and melancholia (possibly prompted by the sudden death of his first son at the age of two). Les deux voix, exhibited at the 1875 Salon, in which a praying woman in traditional Aragonese costume is caught between evil and good, best epitomizes Antigna’s spiritual quest in the later years of his career.