Prussian-born Joseph Wolf settled in London in 1848 and provided illustrations for, among others, the celebrated ornithologist John Gould, the Royal Zoological Society and Charles Darwin. He was highly regarded by his peers, with Sir Edwin Landseer describing him as 'the best all-round animal painter who ever lived'. The young Archibald Thorburn was a regular visitor to Wolf's studio and painted several works very similar in style and composition to Wolf, including a gyrfalcon, and thought Wolf's work 'not only faultless as regards truth to nature, but there is, besides, an indescribable feeling of life and movement never attained by any other artist...This shows not only his great power of observation, but also how much poetry there is in his nature' (A.H. Palmer, The Life of Joseph Wolf, London and New York, 1895, p. 286).
Wolf depicted gyrfalcons on many occasions, including for John Gould's Birds of Great Britain (vol. I, 1872). He is known predominantly through his illustrations and subsequent lithographs, but he also exhibited oil paintings and many of these transcend the meticulous academic depictions seen in his illustrations. His subjects are rich in characterisation, full of grace and nobility. They are often set in sublime landscapes, such as the present picture, and also The proud bird of the mountain, 1853 (Royal Academy, London), depicting a golden eagle in a snow storm.