The genius of prehistoric art

Mark Schofield

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When Pablo Picasso visited the newly-discovered Lascaux caves, in the Dordogne, in 1940, he emerged from them saying of modern art, 'We have discovered nothing'"


It would be easy to suppose that cave art, being extremely old, is primitive. This is far from being the case. Despite having only the simplest of tools, artists of this era invented a rich language of visual expression. Owing to the inaccessibility of many of the caves, the animals must have been painted from memory, not nature. Therefore, the salient features of each subject had to be perfectly understood.

The artisitic qualities of cave art are best described through examples, so here are some of my personal favourites


Figure 1: Horse, Lascaux

The horse in figure 1 is striking for its anatomical correctness, particularly in the fetlocks and the hooves. What is most remarkable however is the fact that the horse is shown in full movement as it gallops. Careful positioning of all four legs makes the horse appear both natural and graceful in what is a masterful piece of observation.

Figure 2: Epson Derby, Theodore Gericault

We can contrast this painting with the painting of Epson Derby by Theodore Gericault in Figure 2. The horses of Gericault are also in gallop, but unlike the horse in Figure 1, they seem to be floating in mid-air. None of their hooves are in contact with the ground. At the time of Gericault's painting, time lapse photography was still unknown. Only later would it be shown that when the legs of a horse are stretched out, at least one hoof is always in contact with the ground.

Studies of Horses

The studies of horses heads in figure 3 are remarkable for the detail of observation they contain. The mane, the ears, and the general attitude of the head have all been beautifully reproduced. Careful application of light and dark shading has been used to describe the pattern of the head, the neck and the hair in the mane.

These images compare favourably with that of a Przewalskis horse in figure 4. The Przewalskis horse is a relative of the domestic horse, and probably the closest living relative of the prehistoric animal depicted in figure 3

Figure 3: Horses, Chauvet
Figure 4: Przewalskis horse

Pride of lions

The heads of lions in figure 5 are remarkable for their technical qualities. Careful attention has been paid to effects of light and dark, with shadows and highlights used to make the heads more three dimensional. White next to black has been used on the heads on the right hand side to enhance the form of the muzzles and make the cheeks stand out.

Figure 5: Lions, Chauvet


The aurochs, or bulls, in figure 6 are part of a group of four, one of which measures 17 feet. The scale of these bulls indicates the confidence and ambition of the artist that executed them.

Rather than rely purely on anatomical correctness, the artist has sought to use a measure of abstraction in order to bring out the essential characteristics of the bull.

A similar aim was central to Pablo Picasso when in the 1940s, he produced a series of lithographs of a bull, some of which are shown in figure 7. Picasso's aim was to reduce, through successive images, a realist bull to an elemental, abstract bull that would contain only the quintessential bullishness. It is a matter of debate whether Picasso or the artist of Lascaux came the closest in this respect.

Figure 6: Aurochs, Lascaux
Figure 7: Lithographs of a bull, Pablo Picasso

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Mark Schofield
Last updated : 09 Feb 2011