From Lascaux to the Louvre: the Origins of Art in France

The cave of Lascaux in the Dordogne is without doubt the most well-known of all cave art sites in the world. The discovery of this cave in 1940 did much to change the way in which scholars of art thought about the history of art. Up until this time, Western art was generally thought to have originated in Ancient Greece. And now, Lascaux is still widely thought to be the origins of art. All this attention took its toll on the Stone Age paintings in the cave. On 20 April 1963 Lascaux was closed to the public.

lascaux-aurochs

Twenty years later Lascaux II was opened to visitors. Having been in both Lascaux and its replica, I can attest to the claims that the accuracy of the replica is measured in millimetres. While there is no escaping the fact that visiting the original is certainly a wonderful experience, visiting the reproduction should not be missed – certainly not on grounds of authenticity. In any event, there are many other cave art sites in the Dordogne to visit for a more authentic experience, including Bernifal, Rouffignac, Les Combarelles and Font de Gaume. If I was to recommend one cave it would have to be the cave of Pech Merle.

The cave is large, with seven underground ‘galleries’ totalling 2 kilometres in length. And although visitors only get to see about a third of the cave, they do get to see the best third. The cave is best known for the large panel of spotted horses, the head of one of which is formed by a natural shape on cave wall.

pech-merle2

The prehistoric galleries were discovered in 1922 by two young boys, André David (16) and Henri Dutertre (15). And the cave was opened to the public shortly thereafter in 1926. But visitor numbers are controlled for conservation reasons. As with much of France’s prehistory, initial studies of the cave were undertaken by the local priest (from the nearby town of Cabrerets), Father Amédée Lemozi.

Besides the spotted horses there are also many paintings of mammoths, aurochs, mountain goat, bison, deer, lion, female human figures, stencilled hand prints and geometric signs. There are also some rather enigmatic images of human figures: the so-called ‘wounded’ man – a male figure that appears to be impaled by a number of spears – and the bison-woman. There are also some calcified footprints made by an adolescent boy.

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About Thomas Dowson

Hello, I am Thomas Dowson – a freelance writer and archaeologist living in Normandy, France. My field of expertise is prehistoric art – such as the cave paintings in the Dordogne and South Africa. But I am becoming passionately interested in France more generally, and Normandy in particular, and what this country and one of its very well known regions has to offer people with all sorts of tastes and desires. In 2005 I exchanged a university archaeology lecture room for a Bed & Breakfast in Normandy. More recently I started the Archaeology Travel website; sharing my expertise and love of archaeology and travel with others who also want to explore the many different pasts around the World.