The First Plein Air Painters

3 Aug 2011

The cave paintings of Lascaux. The cave paintings of Lascaux.

The cave paintings of Lascaux.

Legend has it that Pablo Picasso remarked upon emerging from a visit to Lascaux cave that, "we have discovered nothing new in art in 17,000 years." The beautiful artwork from this ancient era is a reminder of our innate impulse to create. Amazingly, research is showing that at the time that the Lascaux paintings were being made (the upper Paleolithic era), humans were using almost all of the major representational techniques already, from oil and water- based painting to engraving and sculpture. "Primitive" artists were also using sophisticated techniques of perspective and shading. In many of the cave drawings, animals are drawn in a way that suggests motion and were carefully situated so that the natural shape of the cave walls gave them the strong illusion of three-dimensional form.   

There have been so many theories and counter-theories proposed by scientists over time about the purpose of this prehistoric art. We will never know for sure. The interesting thing is that the tribes of hunter/gatherers devoted many precious resources to support the countless hours necessary for making the cave paintings and carving the cave sculptures. All the evidence suggests that the caves where the paintings and sculptures exist were heavily used by the entire tribe. 

Cave painting of the Megaloceros at Lascaux.
Cave painting of the Megaloceros at Lascaux.

All we truly can know is that there was an impulse to make the art by these first plein air painters and that the art was very important, perhaps even necessary in the everyday life of the early hominids. Whether or not the drawings were simply an early form of information gathering and networking, one cannot deny that by any aesthetic standards, they are inspiring and exciting to see. One also cannot truly appreciate these works through photographs. The cave itself is an active participant in the art experience.  

We don't know why humans need to create visions of beauty and art, but the evidence so far indicates this impulse to process our experiences by the creation of objects and pictures has been with us for many tens of thousands of years.

For more on these interesting topics, including a mini-tour of the Dordogne River Vallery, where the Lascaux caves are, visit us at The Artist's Road.

-John & Ann


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Kisu wrote
on 4 Aug 2011 8:10 AM

And also note the abstract elements they incorporated, as well.  So I guess Picasso was right!

on 5 Aug 2011 10:32 AM

Hi, there are newly found caves in France called Chauvet Caves. There is a new movie out by Werner Herzog on this. It's a 3d film and very interesting. The art is twice as old as Lascaux, being about 32,000 BC. Enjoy...

KatPaints wrote
on 6 Aug 2011 1:49 PM

I googled to get Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Where can I see this?

on 8 Aug 2011 10:51 AM

Hey Kat, Lascaux should get you there.--Courtney