Ancient Cave Paintings

Last year, when we were making our plans to move to France, reading books and doing research, I told Ben Blair that the number one thing I wanted to see was the prehistoric cave paintings in the Dordogne region.

The most famous are the Lascaux cave paintings. I studied them in college and fell in love with the whole idea of them immediately, because they’re dated at 20,000(!) years old, but there’s nothing primitive about them. The lines of the drawings are sophisticated and elegant. They were drawn over thousands of years by teams of artists who clearly studied a specific technique. They’re gorgeous. When I learned about them,  I remember thinking: I know it was 20,000 years ago, but anyone whose brain could create something like those drawings, couldn’t have been very different from me.

Anyway. I’ve wanted to see them for so long, and on our drive to Barcelona, we were able to. (Chills just thinking about it!)

The Lascaux caves are closed now, because of a fungus that is eating away at the drawings. But there are several other caves you can visit. We stopped at Font de Gaume. It has drawings of Mammoths, wooly rhinoceros, bison and horses. It’s one of the only caves that shows multi-color drawings.

There are absolutely no photos allowed and the cave is dark and remains dimly lit to preserve the drawings. The whole visit felt otherworldly to me. I didn’t want to talk. I just wanted to imagine the artists working in the caves. What were their tools like? What did they wear to keep warm? Did they work alone? What was their intention? I think I was most impressed with the way the artists used the natural features of the cave. For example, the neck of the horse would be drawn around a concave section of rock, so that the horse looked three-dimensional. Beautiful and clever.

Archeologists say the society that created those cave paintings was stable for 8,000 years. Can you imagine? Rome was around for 1000 years. The US isn’t 250 years old yet. Isn’t it crazy to think of 8,000 years?

I feel so lucky — I think I’m still a little stunned that we got to go. : )

Is it just me, or are you moved by this prehistoric art? What’s the number one work of art you would like to see in person?

P.S. — The images above were drawn by Henri Breuil after he visited Font de Gaum.

37 thoughts on “Ancient Cave Paintings”

  1. I loved this post, Gabby! Since I was young I’ve always been interested in archeology in all its forms and even cave paintings. Besides being considered the earliest forms of art, they have so much mystery behind!
    I love to see the caves of Altamira in Spain.

  2. I know what you mean. I’m Australuan and white settlement of Aust is only 200 odd years, now I live in Europe I’m constantly blown away by the age of buildings, etc. I always think, the laborers were living in straw clad structures while building this cathedral? Incredible. I’m an art novice, so will have to get back to you on my number one piece of art 
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. When my husband and I were staying at Steph and Ben’s La Maisonette last Spring we went to see the Lascaux replica caves and they were truly remarkable. We were so amazed by the whole experience – it is incredible such sophisticated work was done so long ago. Amazing.

  4. Wow, I never gave cave paintings much thought, but this…, I never realized. It certainly makes you think. 8000 years of stability? Doesn’t that sound wonderful, especially these days?

  5. I too am moved by the art of prehistoric peoples. I think creative expression is at the heart of who we are as human beings, and to see the artistic expressions of the many cultures and eras of human history is incredibly moving. I am a believer and believe God has plan that is playing out through history. I often think of what God’s interaction with these people/cultures was like.

    1. Carole, I love the last line of your comment. It’s something I think about a lot when I read certain literature, too…

  6. I’ve never even heard of those before, I can’t believe how gorgeous they are! I’m not really an art afficionado but I love the impressionists. I actually teared up when I walked into the Musee d’Orsay earlier this year and saw the original Renoir’s and Monet’s. But I full-on cried when I saw “Whistler’s Mother”. My mom is a big Whistler fan and has several reproductions in her home, and when I saw it I couldn’t help myself. It was so gorgeous and moving to see it in person.

  7. Absolutely. STunning. And yes – mind boggling. The thought of all that history makes my teeth ache. (Isn’t that a wierd thing to say? Yep, I think so too.)

    I’ve been lucky enough to check off a lot of the the Must Sees on my art list. The #1 work of art on my current ‘to see list’ is Picasso’s “Guernica” in the Prado Museum, Madrid. I wonder and hope if it will be as powerful as I expect. I have high expectations for that one, and sometimes we’re afraid to be disappointed.

  8. So glad you got to the cave paintings. I’m hoping to go one day too.

    I fulfilled a life wish of mine this summer and saw Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks in person. I was surprised to literally have my breath taken away by its ethereal light.

    Somehow visiting the city of Paris – the bridges, the Eiffel Tower, the Notre Dame – was the same “I need to pinch myself” artistic experience.

  9. I love JMW Turner, most of his stuff is in the Tate Gallery London (never been there…) something about his work really speaks to me, and the few I’ve seen in person just drew me in from across the room. Also the winged Nike sculpture (missing it’s head) in the Louvre (never been there either).

  10. Love this article! I am a Greek Language and History teacher (leaving in Cyprus, Europe) and my students always are amazed when we discuss about pre-historic humans and their achievements. It’s true, they were not that different from us. Homo sapiens, our ancestor, had formed a society with structure similar to ours. Sorry about my english, you get the point, I guess!

  11. This is amazing Gabrielle — I’ve always been so fascinated by these drawings. You know what really blows my mind though? THIS AMAZING LIFE EXPERIENCE you and your family are having. I’ve always wanted to live in Europe for an extended time. We own our home and have pets, and it just seems daunting to think whether or not we could swing something like what you are doing! Maybe an long long holiday. :) But I so admire what you and your family are getting to do! xoxo

  12. Yes it is pretty amazing to think that people who lived 20,000 years ago would be so much like us, and despite their harsher living conditions, want to express beauty or leave a legacy.

  13. I visited Font de Gaume earlier this year, and it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life! I agree, I feel so fortunate to have been able to see that in person. The whole feeling there was amazing. I was whispering something at one point during the tour and our tour guide said, “Why are you whispering?” And I said, “Because it feels like a church.”

    Glad you were able to go too!

  14. I would love to visit the Alhambra in Spain and of course Machu Pichu (Peru). I know I’ll get around to visiting the Alhambra, since I live in Belgium which is not that far away, but Peru is another story. I would very much like to go but, as I’m sure you know, air travel with children is quite expensive.

  15. I am so glad you got to see it. How cool! I was lucky enough to live in D.C. for years in my early 20s when I had no responsibilities and I spent every weekend in the free museums. The art in the collections held by the U.S. government was darn good and some of it was sublime and gasp worthy. The most recent time art made me cry though was in Paris. Hubby had gone there iwth his dad a decade before and brought home a print from the D’Orsay of a couple in bed. It hung in our first apartment. When we rounded the corner in a dark, underground gallery and I saw it in person for the first time I gasped. And then I stood there crying for way too long. We saw a lot of amazing art in Paris — things I knew and recognized and was excited to examine in person — but that piece was my favorite. Too bad I can’t remember the artist’s name!

  16. We went to Dordogne this summer too!

    We saw Lascaux II (which is the replica – they dont allow photos in the fake one either btw!). It felt rushed…we got thrown out because our 2 year old was talking a bit. I got to repeat the tour alone (in French without my French husband – but understood most of it). We just took turns with our toddler outside. My husband did not like his guide he was a bit annoying and you didn’t get much time to enjoy it peacefully…they just keep the tours coming in every 15mins. It’s a money maker. There are many more REAL ones you can visit but I wouldn’t suggest it with young children too stressful.

    We enjoyed the stalagmite and stalactite caves near where we were staying. It is wonderful as well! And they did not mind young children talking ;-)

    Dordogne is a wonderful place for many many reasons (warm weather, beautiful river, medieval (and cute) villages, great food and wine (fois gras and duck), prehistoric caves and much more)!

    It is def a place to visit in France after Paris, South of France (not in August!) and Normandy Region (maybe before Normandy depends of what you enjoy).


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