Articles . Art History

Horses throughout Art History: The Panel of Horses, Chauvet Cavet

On December 18, 1994, three French friends, Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, and Christian Hillaire, all experienced spelunkers, discovered a decorated cave in the side of a limestone cliff between the Cévennes and Rhone valleys at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, Ardèche, France, above the old river bed. Inside they found what is believed to be the world's oldest known representational art. The 3 discovers were engaged in a systematic in-depth exploration of the caves in this region of France and had drawn up an inventory of promising archeological sites not previously visited. 

The region is a nature reserve where the landscape, with its magnificent natural arch over the river bed, the plants and trees (lavender, heath, evergreen oaks, box trees, and Spanish junipers), and animals all are federally protected. 

Authentication dating of cave drawings from The Panel of Horses and pieces of charcoal from the cave floor was performed using accelerator mass spectrometric C14 radiocarbon dating, a method that allows sample sizes as small as 1 to 2 mg and, in special circumstances, 50 to 100μg to be studied. The completed dating is consistent with the Aurignacian period, about 30 000 to 32 000 years BP (before the present), which would make the Chauvet cave art the oldest known. Similarly, dating of cave bear bones in the cave ranged from 37 000 and 29 000 years BP. Cave bears are believed to have become extinct in this region by around 29 000 years ago. Because low numbers of samples have been studied to date and all of these analyses were carried out in a single laboratory, some consider the dates as tentative, but all agree that the art is Paleolithic.

All paintings are highly realistic, and many show perspective and utilize the contours in the cave wall, sometimes to suggest movement. The Panel of Horses (cover), a rare naturalistic masterpiece, includes about 20 animals. The confrontation of 2 male rhinoceroses at the bottom of this panel reveals small arched ears, crossed horns, and leg positions suggesting movement. Using radiocarbon dating, 3 dates within the same statistical margins from the Aurignacian period have been established. The rhinoceros on the left is dated to 30 940 ± 610 years BP. The dates for the rhinoceros on the right are 32 410 ± 720 years BP and 30 790 ± 600 years BP.

The heads of the 4 horses in this panel most powerfully engage the viewer (epigraph). The horses, drawn over the other animals, are all thought to be by the same artist, one who mixed charcoal with surface clay on the wall to produce the images. Such mixing allows various hues to be developed using the stump-drawing technique. Apparently the horse on the top was drawn first. The one showing the greatest detail (on the lower right) was drawn last. To some, its open mouth suggests the horse is whinnying. The finishing touch for these drawings was accentuating the form by outlining in white after scraping the outer edges.

Artist(s) unknown. Panel of Horses (fighting rhinoceroses and 4 horses' heads). Paleolithic, Aurignacian era (35 000 to 22 000 BP). Charcoal drawing on rock; length of left rhinoceros, c 100 cm. Chauvet Cave, Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, Ardèche, France. Image

Artist(s) unknown. Panel of Horses (fighting rhinoceroses and 4 horses' heads). Paleolithic, Aurignacian era (35 000 to 22 000 BP). Charcoal drawing on rock; length of left rhinoceros, c 100 cm. Chauvet Cave, Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, Ardèche, France. Image

Artist(s) unknown. Panel of Horses (fighting rhinoceroses and 4 horses' heads). Paleolithic, Aurignacian era (35 000 to 22 000 BP). Charcoal drawing on rock; length of left rhinoceros, c 100 cm. Chauvet Cave, Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, Ardèche, France. Image

Artist(s) unknown. Panel of Horses (fighting rhinoceroses and 4 horses' heads). Paleolithic, Aurignacian era (35 000 to 22 000 BP). Charcoal drawing on rock; length of left rhinoceros, c 100 cm. Chauvet Cave, Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, Ardèche, France. Image

Artist(s) unknown. Panel of Horses (fighting rhinoceroses and 4 horses' heads). Paleolithic, Aurignacian era (35 000 to 22 000 BP). Charcoal drawing on rock; length of left rhinoceros, c 100 cm. Chauvet Cave, Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, Ardèche, France. Image

Artist(s) unknown. Panel of Horses (fighting rhinoceroses and 4 horses' heads). Paleolithic, Aurignacian era (35 000 to 22 000 BP). Charcoal drawing on rock; length of left rhinoceros, c 100 cm. Chauvet Cave, Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, Ardèche, France. Image

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