Painted in 1820, this monumental canvas of Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller is an important early work by Edwin Landseer, the most celebrated British artist of his generation and, along with George Stubbs, the greatest animal painter from the golden age of British Art.
The dangers of crossing the Saint Bernard Pass, which linked Switzerland and Italy, were a perfect source of inspiration for romantic artists and writers in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Pass was the backdrop to Jacques-Louis David’s celebrated equestrian portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte crossing the Alps in 1801, and Turner made drawings of the summit in his Grenoble sketchbook (now at Tate Britain) when he undertook the crossing the following year. When the artist’s father, John Landseer, published a pamphlet to accompany the engraving after the present picture, he quoted extensively from William Brockedon’s Illustrations of Passes of the Alps and from Samuel Rogers’s poem The Pass of the Saint Bernard.
The subject of this remarkable picture is inspired by the Alpine mastiffs, sent out to rescue travellers by monks from the Hospice situated near the summit of Saint Bernard. In the 1981 exhibition catalogue, Richard Ormond noted that, ‘The idea of serving God and man in such a remote setting held a strong appeal for the romantic imagination. And the enormous dogs, whose courage and tenacity in the service of man were proverbial, appeared as sublime philanthropists, ‘living lifeboats’, as John Landseer called them ‘of those dreadful, desolate and tempestuous regions’ (R. Ormond, Sir Edwin Landseer, exhibition catalogue, London, 1981, p. 50).
The dramatic composition is dominated by the two magnificent mastiffs, who tower over the partially buried figure in the snow. In his pamphlet, John Landseer suggests that this elegantly attired young man is a student of science, possibly a mineralogist, who was trapped by an avalanche while walking in the mountains. As the dog carrying a small keg of brandy around its neck attempts to revive the stricken figure by licking his hand, the other paws the snow away and barks to alert his masters of their discovery. Landseer’s sparkling technique, that would later secure the artist’s reputation as the pre-eminent painter of his age, is beautifully displayed here. The protagonists in the foreground are captured with wonderfully full-blooded brushstrokes, while the rich green of the young man’s fur-lined coat and the red blanket, carried by the barking dog, are set off by masterfully textured layers of lead white that describe the mass of snow.
This highly romantic picture was the young artist’s largest and most ambitious work and received considerable praise when shown at the British Institution in 1820. Writing in the Annals of the Fine Arts for 1820, the reviewer of the exhibition compared Landseer’s work to that of the great Flemish artist Frans Snyders, ‘who never painted better than the heads of these dogs, could not have painted the dying traveller near so well, and never gave half the historical interest and elaboration to any of his pictures, unassisted by Rubens, as this possesses.’
Trained by his father, Landseer was regarded as a child prodigy. Formally admitted to the Royal Academy schools at the age of thirteen in 1816, by the following year he was exhibiting both at the Royal Academy and the Society of Painters in oil and watercolours. His first royal commission came in 1836 when he painted Princess Victoria’s pet spaniel, Dash, as a birthday present commissioned by her mother, the Duchess of Kent. He would become the young queen’s favourite artist, and give her drawing lessons. Landseer’s success and popularity was partly attained through the engravings of his work, which spread his fame throughout the world. The artist’s prints had been widely circulated in France from the 1830s onwards, and at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855, his pictures greatly impressed French critics and the public. The art critic Théophile Gautier reflected that ‘Landseer gives his beloved animals soul, thought, poetry, and passion. What worries him is […] the very spirit of the beast, and in this respect there is no painter to match him’ (Les Beaux-Arts en Europe, Paris, 1855, I, pp. 72-7, cited in R. Ormond, op. cit., p. 31). He was one of the very few foreigners awarded a gold medal in the exhibition.
Ormond notes of Landseer’s unrivalled position as the greatest animal painter of the nineteenth Century, ‘As an animal painter Landseer stands on his own. Landseer’s links are with the genre and literary painters of the period in his ability as a storyteller; like theirs, his pictures are concerned with moralities and feelings. The image of the dog that Landseer presents has parallels in contemporary literature; dogs figure largely in the novels of Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens, for example, as creatures of feeling and intelligence... Landseer’s detailed anatomical knowledge - his wonderful feeling for the character and texture of animal life - satisfied the quasi-scientific outlook of his audience, while his visual stories allowed uninhibited enjoyment of loving and faithful dogs in a wide range of dramatic situations.’ (ibid., p. 94).
A smaller version of this composition, considered to be a finished preparatory study for the present canvas, was sold at Christie’s New York, 6 December 1996, lot 68. A preparatory drawing, showing the standing dog with his back to the viewer, will be offered at Christie’s, London, 8 December 2017, lot 297 (fig. 1).