The first known instance of a St. Bernard bearing a neck cask rescuing a person in peril took place in 1820. Contrary to popular belief, this didn’t occur in the snowy Alps. It was in England, probably in an art studio. Because the first instance was wholly a matter of artistic fancy—a pair of St. Bernards, then called Alpine mastiffs, were depicted saving a haggard man, his life draining from him as he lay entombed in a snowbank. One dog is evidently signaling rescuers by barking. The other dog compassionately licks the man’s hand, perhaps trying to warm it enough that he might twist the spigot on the tiny barrel affixed around its neck, and partake of life-giving brandy.
The artwork-entitled Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler, was painted by a prodigy named Edwin Landseer. At the time, he was just 17 years old, and it was said he could paint with both hands simultaneously. (Dog’s head with the left; tail with the right; meet in the middle. One imagines Bob Ross on methamphetamines.) Landseer had never been to the Alps, but some years earlier he’d seen a stellar example of one of these dogs, which had crossed the Channel for a British tour. The mastiff made a memorable impression on Landseer.
Landseer would go on to become a noted painter of animals of many stripes, especially dogs and horses. (Among his favored scenes were Newfoundland dogs saving the drowning.) In fact, his work was notable enough that he palled around with Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray later in life, and also became a favorite of Queen Victoria. (The queen noted of him that he was “very good looking although rather short.”)
But his most influential painting arguably was one of his first—the depiction of the heroic St. Bernards. It was this work that ensured that henceforth everyone would associate certain dogs with certain tiny barrels.
Many tall stories contain a shot-glass worth of truth, and that appears to be the case in the matter of rescue dogs. In fact, a western Alpine pass did exist that vexed travelers, connecting modern-day Italy and Switzerland. The pass had earlier been a shortcut for rampaging Romans heading north, who had erected a temple to Jupiter there. More than a millennium later, the pass was used by devout Catholic pilgrims headed south to Rome. Short, but often dangerous. Snow persisted year-round, and could drift up to 40 feet. Avalanches were common. And so, Bernard of Menthon (ca. 1020-1081), later St. Bernard, erected a traveler’s shelter and monastery at the highest point, about 8,000 feet above sea level.