The painted walls of the interconnected series of caves in Lascaux in southwestern France are among the most impressive and well-known artistic creations of Paleolithic humans. Most of the paintings depict animals that would have been found in the surrounding landscape - horses, bison, mammoths, ibex, aurochs, deer, lions, bears, and wolves. The animals in the foreground above are aurochs, ancestors of the modern cow. The depicted animals comprise both species that would have been hunted and eaten (such as deer and bison) as well as those that were feared predators (such as lions, bears, and wolves). No vegetation or illustration of the environment is portrayed around the animals, who are represented in profile and often standing in an alert and energetic stance. Their vitality is achieved by the broad, rhythmic outlines around areas of soft color. The animals are typically shown in a twisted perspective, with the heads depicted in profile but the pair of horns or antlers rendered frontally visible. (In contrast, a strictly optical profile would show only one horn or antler.) The intended result may have been to imbue the images with more visual power and magical properties. The combination of profile and frontal perspectives is an artistic idiom also observed in ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian art.
The pigments used to paint Lascaux and other caves were derived from readily available minerals and include red, yellow, black, brown, and violet. No brushes have been found, so in all probability the broad black outlines were applied using mats of moss or hair, or even with chunks of raw color. The surfaces appear to have been covered by paint blown directly from the mouth or through a tube; color-stained, hollowed-out bones have been found in the caves.
Compare the cave painting of the aurochs above with depictions of the cow in the paintings listed below:
After a visit to Lascaux in 1940, the painter Pablo Picasso reportedly said to his guide, "They've invented everything." Discuss what he might have meant by that statement?
Picasso's Bulls - In 1945, after seeing the Lascaux drawings, Picasso did a series of lithographic prints in which he started with a plump and very detailed bull and gradually stripped away details until he ended up with one that was more primitive, in the spirit of the Lascaux paintings.
Hang brown paper on the wall and provide paint, chalk, crayons or markers. Students will create their own "cave paintings" of cows and horses.
Related lesson online: Taming the Wild Aurochs
McCully, Emily Arnold, The Secret Cave: Discovering Lascaux, Farar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.
Oklahoma Ag in the Classroom is a program of the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, 4-H Youth Development, the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry and the Oklahoma State Department of Education.