Although not technically famous paintings per se, the cave paintings in Spain and France remain a defining event in art history, and are inarguably some of the most extraordinary, famous artwork ever produced.

Chauvet Cave

Early paintings were found in 1994 in the Chauvet cave of southwestern France.
Images in the cave include the bison, mammoth, wild horse, rhino, deer, owl, auroch (an ancestor of domestic cattle), ibex and even occasional people.

Left: Big Horn Rhino

It is believed that this massive network of caves was occupied by humans during two periods (the dates of which aren’t unanimously agreed upon by archaeologists):

Radiocarbon dating indicates that paintings in the Chauvet cave were made during the Aurignacian occupation; from the Gravettian occupation comes the oldest known human footprints, those of a young boy.

Altamira Caves

The famous paintings in Spain’s Altamira caves, recently dated to 12,500 BCE, typically depict bison and introduced a sculptural effect to prehistoric art.  Its artists

  • incorporated irregularities and protrusions in the cave’s walls and ceilings into their designs, making the paintings appear three dimensional and moving, and

  • created highly realistic depictions, rendered using three hues of natural pigments like ochre and zinc oxides.

Right: Altamira Cave, Bison

Although the Altamira Caves were discovered in 1879, its paintings were dismissed as inauthentic on the grounds that “primitive” people couldn’t create such art.

Not until 1902 — at which time other paintings had been discovered in northern Spain and France – was Altamira’s famous artwork deemed authentically prehistoric. Archeologists continue to debate, however, whether the figures depicted were symbolic and fantastic, or were actual creatures who lived at the time.

In November, 2011, scientists examined the Pech-Merle paintings (in southwestern France) and compared Stone Age with present age DNA.

They concluded that the spotted horses depicted there (left) actually existed!

Lascaux Caves

The most complicated cave paintings are found in Lascaux, in the Dordogne region of southern France.   These caves – with an astonishing array of 600 paintings and 1500 engravings –  were discovered in 1940 by four teenagers, Marcel Ravisdat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel and Simon Coencas.

In recounting his first glimpse of the paintings, Marsal described a

cavalcade of animals larger than life painted on the walls and ceiling of the cave; each animal seemed to be moving.

Unlike other caves in which prehistoric paintings have been discovered, Lascaux has a protective layer of chalk which rendered the cave waterproof, preserving these paintings for millenia.

Lascaux Caves, Great Hall of the Bulls.

As with painters in the Altamira cave, Lascaux painters also incorporated the protrusions inherent in the walls.  Subject matter included the ibex, auroch, bear and feline, whose most distinctive characteristics were exaggerated – these animals’ eyes, hooves and horns are depicted simultaneously from the front and in profile.

Look how this simultaneity is captured centuries later in one of the best known Picasso paintings, Girl Before a Mirror.

Pablo Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror.  Oil on canvas, 1932.  Museum of Modern Art, New York.

During World War II, the Altamira caves were used by the French Resistance to store weapons. Opened to the public in 1948, these caves became one of France’s most popular tourist destinations until carbon dioxide exhalations, humidity, and contaminants triggered disintegration of the art.  The caves were closed to the public in 1963.

UPDATE June 2016: 70 Paleolithic-era cave paintings have been discovered in the Basque Country Atxurra caves.  Estimated to be around 14,000 years old, these animal paintings show traditional hunting scenes and are in pristine condition.

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