This work is, according to Algernon Graves in his 1876 compilation of Landseer's oeuvre, "a smaller finished picture" of the artist's famous and exceptionally large canvas, Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Destressed Traveler (Sotheby's, New York, June 4, 1993, lot 61), painted in 1820 when the artist was only 18 years old. The smaller version does not have the "St.B" on the red blanket nor the bells and detailed collar that appear in the larger painting. However, the large picture does not have the cork on the end of the barrel and the tree limbs in the background are slightly different. The tail of the standing dog is longer and not as white in the larger painting, further developing and enhancing the triangular composition. Therefore, it seems logical that our painting pre-dates the larger one.
In the catalogue to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Tate Gallery Exhibition, Richard Ormond writes about the larger painting. "The dangers of crossing the Alps had long provided a fruitful source of subject for romantic artists and writers. In his pamphlet accompanying the engraving after this picture, John Landseer, the artist's father, quoted extensively from William Brockedon's Illustrations of Passes of the Alps and from Samuel Roger's poem The Pass of the Saint Bernard.
Many legends had grown up around the great hospice almost at the summit of Saint Bernard Pass, linking Switzerland and Italy, where the monks went out of their way to assist travelers with the aid of their famous breed of Alpine mastiffs, or Saint Bernards, as they became known. 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 life-boats,' as John Landseer called them,' of those dreadful, desolate and tempestuous regions.'
At the time Landseer painted the picture, Saint Bernards were a rarity in England. A few years earlier he had drawn one of the first such animals to arrive in the country (1815, Pennsylvania State University Art Gallery), and he seems to have been the only artist to exploit their pictorial potential. He had never been to Switzerland and the setting of his picture is rather theatrical and unconvincing, but the appearance of the dogs gave it enormous novelty value.
Wonderfully observed, with huge bodies and slobbering jaws, the dogs dominate the compostion. They have just come upon the body of a man dressed in a green fur-lined jacket, with gloves and cap, who is buried in the snow. In his pamphlet John Landseer surmised that he was a student of science, a mineralogist perhaps, who has become trapped by an avalanche while wandering in the mountains. The dogs 'have evidently been for some short period of time at their work of disinternment and resuscitiation: one of them is sounding forth his hoarse and solemn bark, to inform their masters that they have met with an adventure, while the other licks the hand, and steadfastly regards the eye of the patient, as the index of returning animation.'
The dog on the right has a red blanket...The other dog has a small keg of brandy. John Landseer distinguished the first dog from a Saint Bernard sketched earlier by Landseer, whose name apparently was Lion. Algernon Graves called the other dog Caesar, son of Lion, but John Landseer identified it as a female dog, belonging to Landseer's fellow artist Thomas Christmas.
In this work, Landseer's largest and most important work to date, the dogs form a monumental pyramid. The diagonal thrust of the bounding dog on the right is held in check by the rounded, static form of the other. The head of the man, seen dramatically upside down, as in manneristic art, closes the composition at the bottom, and his figure forms another diagonal line. In the background the eye is held by the yawning cleft in the mountains, representing the pass, and by the zigzag path on the right along which the monks are rushing. The color scheme is deep toned and sonorous, with Landseer's favorite greens and reds standing out from the white snow.
The picture was well received at its 1820 exhibition at the British Institution." (Ormond, pp.50-51)
According to Christie's 1872 catalogue preface, "The noble Collection of Pictures brought together by the late Mr. Joseph Gillott has enjoyed so world-wide a fame, and has been so long regarded by connoisseurs-- and justly so--as a complete epitome of the English School, that very little comment is neccesary in bringing it before the public." Gillott's sale included 525 lots and was sold over six days. It contained many works by Linnell, Etty, Constable, Hunt, Cox, Wilkie, Müller, Gainsborough, as well as Turner. Gillot owned Turner's Going to the Ball and Returning from the Ball (Private Collection) as well as Walton Bridges (Lloyd Collection). He also owned several other works by Landseer including Pointers, To Ho! (Private Collection, Ormond, p. 52, no. 15) which although measuring 53 by 72½ inches sold for +2,016, in the 1872 Christie's sale, just slightly more than the price paid for our much smaller painting.