Giovanni Segantini was born on 15 January 1858 in what was then the small Austrian city of Arco, the son of street vendor Agostino Segantini and Margherita de Girardi. His mother died at an early age. When he was seven, Giovanni was sent to live with his half-sister, Irene, in Milan, where he spent a difficult childhood and youth. He learned the profession of shoemaker, worked in his half-brother Napoleone’s photography and chemist’s shop, and was assistant to a painter-decorator. He attended courses at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan and achieved his first success with his painting, "Il coro di Sant’Antonio" (The Choir of Sant’Antonio).
In 1881, Segantini turned his back on the city and together with Luigia Bugatti, known as Bice, settled in the Brianza, a lakeland district situated between Milan and Como. His rejection of the city and the Academy, with its doctrinaire rules and prescribed mythological and religious subject matter, is typical of the times. Like many artists, Segantini looked beyond traditional forms of painting in search of naturalistic, simple motifs from everyday life. At that time, the Brianza was an entirely rural landscape, and Segantini immediately set to work studying the daily lives of the peasants. The close relationship between the shepherds or shepherdesses and their animals was a favourite pictorial motif, which the artist also repeatedly took up in Graubünden. In 1882, the unmarried couple’s first son, Gottardo, (who was later to became a painter himself and also wrote his father's biography) was born, followed in later years by sons Alberto and Mario and daughter Bianca.
In August 1886, after a long exploratory trip, Giovanni Segantini settled in Savognin, an Alpine farming village in the Oberhalbstein region of Graubünden. Shortly afterwards, in the winter of 1886/87, he received a visit from his art dealer, Vittore Grubicy, who informed his protégé of the latest developments in the art world in France. However, in particular the Alpine landscape, with its crystal-clear light, led Segantini to discover a new pictorial language. Occasionally, he gave the closely observed mountain landscapes symbolic content, creating allegorical pictorial visions of extraordinary luminosity. This shift away from realistic genre painting came at a time when it was in crisis all across Europe.
After eight years in Savognin, Giovanni Segantini moved with his family to the Engadin; he was unable to pay the cantonal taxes and was being pursued by creditors. In 1894, he took up residence in the Chalet Kuoni in Maloja. Here, the artist – whose paintings were among the most expensive of the day – continued to enjoy the extravagant lifestyle of the Milanese upper classes, which rapidly swallowed up his increasingly high fees. The family spent the winter in Soglio, in the Bregaglia valley.
On 28 September 1899, at the age of 41 years, Segantini died unexpectedly on the Schafberg high above Pontresina while working on the middle section of his Alpine Triptych.