Prehistoric Beginnings
Upon viewing the prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux, France, Pablo Picasso remarked, "We have invented nothing."
Contemporary viewers of the Altamira Cave











Luncheon on the Grass

During the Enlightenment and early modern eras, art history as a discipline began to blossom.
However, in the early years of this century most art historians were principally interested in two types of problems:
Establishing the authorship and date of works of art.
Aanalyzing changes in style, both in the careers of individual artists and as a more general process.
Manet, Luncheon on the Grass (Le Dejeuner Sur L'Herbe), 1863.











As printing technologies improved, the study of art history became accessible to more and more people.











Eventually, as published discourse began to proliferate, art theory developed beyond aesthetic concerns.
"A theory is more than a definition; it is a framework that supplies an orderly explanation of observed phenomena. A theory should help things make sense rather than create obscurity through jargon and weighty words. It should systematically unify and organize a set of observations, building from basic principles. " - Cynthia Freeland
Wall Street Journal, Pep Montserrat











Clement Greenberg with Noland painting

In the 1960s new criteria for writing art history were adopted by many art historians with an emphasis on a variety of considerations, including feminism, and an overlay of a literary-theory model of interpretation which became known as the "New Art History."
More recently, these considerations have expanded to include Marxist, Psychoanalytic, and semiotic approaches to analysis.
Clement Greenberg studying Kenneth Noland, Song, 1958.











The Questions Art Historians Ask
Chronology = When was it made? How old is it?
Provenance = Where was it made? Who paid for it, and when?
Artist = Who made it? Under what conditions was the work conceived?
Style = How does it look? Is that look particular to a time, place or artist?
Subject = Who and what is depicted? What story is being told?
Iconography = What symbols are used and what do they mean?
Form = How was the work composed and made?
Consider the formal elements such as composition, materials, technique, line, color, texture, space, mass, volume, perspective, foreshortening, proportion, scale, etc.





















To analyze a work of art:
1. Describe the work
2. What questions do you ask of the work?
3. Choose a method to better understand the work

Remember, you the viewer, use the method to better understand the artwork. Sometimes the artist uses a method to make the work, but the work NEVER uses the methods because it's a thing, not a person.

4. Develop an argument that articulates meaning
Athenodoros of Rhodes, Hagesandros, and Polydorus of Rhodes, Laocoön and his sons, early first century CE.











"It is commonly assumed that vision is immediate. It seems direct, uncomplicated, and instantaneous—which is why it has arguably become the master sense for the delivery of information in the contemporary technological world. However, just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it. Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness."
- Jennifer L. Roberts
Emperor Justinian with Attendants
Emperor Justinian and Attendants, Mosaic on north wall of the apse,
Church of San Vitale, c. 547. 8' 8" by 12'.











Remember to utilize a practice of questioning.
  • Open ended questions are stronger because they can usually be answered with multiple acceptable answers.
  • "How" and "Why" questions lead to more depth than "What" and "Who" questions.
  • Remember that you may not be able to answer all of your questions immediately and that's OK.


Zeus or Poseidon

Zeus, c. 460 - 450 BC. Bronze, height 6' 10".











Art Historical Methodologies
considers the visual elements of a work such as line, composition, color, media to interpret meaning
identifies the symbols in a work, and uses their definition to interpret meaning
identifies symbols in a work, and considers why they mean what they mean to interpret meaning
considers the socio-economic position of women represented, implied, making, or viewing the work, as well as issues of equality and power (or the lack thereof) to interpret meaning
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
considers the life of the artist, and/ or significant events in their lives to interpret meaning
considers economic factors related to Marx's theory of class and power to interpret meaning
considers the unconscious effects of traumatic events or experiences in the life of the artist or viewer, or shared by a society, to interpret meaning
It is always necessary to consider historical context when using each of these tools



Methodology Flash Cards
Understanding How to Use the Art Historical Methodologies
Approaches to Art essay
Writing about art











One of the most complete, and best preserved pre-human hominin skeletons
  • Found in 1974 in Ethiopia
  • Australopithicus afarensis
3.6 - 3 million year-old "Lucy"











Perhaps the earliest tool user?
Kenyanthropus platyops, "The flat-faced man of Kenya,"
a 3.2 - 3.5 million-year-old skull found in Lake Turkana in 1999










Paleolithic Era, "The Old Stone Age"
40,000 - 8,000 BCE

"Age of food gathering"
ca. 4,000,000 BCE
descendents of humans begin walking upright
ca. 3.5 - 2,000,000 BCE
earliest evidence of toolmaking
ca. 2,500,000 - 230,00 BCE
earliest cultures form
ca. 290,000 BCE
earliest known marks, "cupules," made by humans in cave in North Central India
ca. 70,000 - 8,000 BCE.
last Ice Age in Europe
Waterworn pebble resembling human face
Tools and ochre found in the Blombos Cave
Waterworn pebble resembling human face, South Africa, ca. 3,000,000 BCE.
Engraved ochre and bone tools, Blombos cave, South Africa, ca. 75,000 - 80,000 BCE.


ca. 50,000 BCE
earliest known works that we might call "art" made
tool kits become more complex
appearance of fully modern language
Aurignacian Culture (Eurasian) 38,000 - 29,000 BCE
ca. 30,000 BCE
earliest known sculptures and paintings in Europe
Gravettian Age (Europe) 29,000 - 22,000 BCE
ca. 28,000 BCE
earliest known cave paintings
humans begin practicing ritual burial
Magdalenian Culture (Europe) 19,000 - 12,000 BCE











Prehistoric Human Migration











Human with feline head
animal facing left from the Apollo 11 Cave
Human with feline head, Germany,
ca. 30,000 - 28,000 BCE.
Mammoth ivory. 11 5/8 " high.
Animal facing left from the Apollo 11 Cave, Namibia,
ca. 23,000 BCE.











Although unintended, prehistoric humans used a surprising range of materials and techniques while creating what we now call " prehistoric art."
Bison from Altamira
They drew and painted
Bison from the Altamira Cave, Spain,
ca. 15,000 - 10,000 BCE.











utilizing both abstract and realistic imagery.
Bison from La Madeleine cave, France, ca. 12,000 BCE.
Reindeer horn, length 4".











A study by Genevieve von Petzinger (University of Victoria) has identified 26 symbols that repeatedly appear as prehistoric art over 25,000 years over four continents. Von Petzinger and Professor April Nowell studied the ancient symbols from 146 different sites in France and were able to compare the signs over much a larger scale than had previously been attempted.
The 26 specific signs may provide some evidence that a common graphic code was being used by ancient humans after their arrival into Europe from Africa. At least 19 symbols were used frequently (circles, lines, triangles and spirals) over many thousands of years which could indicate consistent abstract ideas such as life and death.











They often stamped
Palm dots, Chauvet Cave, ca. 30,000 - 28,000 BCE.











and stenciled.
Hands at El Castillo
The smudged red disk below the hand stencils is the oldest cave art yet dated, at 40,800 years old. Located in El Castillo cave in the Cantabria region of northern Spain, this image might have been created by Neanderthals.











They adorned their bodies with non-utilitarian articles.
Brassempouy Woman
Woman of Brassempouy
Woman from Brassempouy, France, ca. 25,000 - 20,000 BCE.
Ivory, height 1 1/4".











They made subtractive sculpture,
Woman holding bison horn
Woman holding a bison horn, from Laussel, France, ca. 25,000 - 20,000 BCE.











additive sculpture,
Two Bison from the cave at Le Tuc d"Audoubert
Two Bison reliefs from the cave at Le Tuc d'Audoubert, France. ca. 15,000 - 10,000 BCE.











and (eventually), they all made installation art!
Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England, ca. 2550 - 1600 BCE.











Prehistoric Cave Sites

Paleolithic Cave Sites












Wounded Bison

Wounded Bison, detail of a painted ceiling in the cave at Altamira, Spain, ca. 13,000 - 11,000 BCE.











Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and Daughter Maria











Axial Gallery

Axial Gallery, Altamira Cave. ca. 13,000 - 10,000 BCE.























Mammoth Bone House

Modern reconstruction of Mammoth Bone House
based on sites in Russia & Ukraine c. 12,000 - 18,000 years ago











Discovered on September 12, 1940 by Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas











Hall of Bulls, Lascaux

Hall of the Bulls in the cave at Lascaux Cave, France, ca. 16,000 - 14,000 BCE.











Left wall of the Hall of the Bulls in the cave at Lascaux Cave, France, ca. 16,000 - 14,000 BCE.
Largest bull 11' 6" long.











virtual tour of Lascaux












Female aurochs and a "Chinese horse," Lascaux, ca. 16,000 - 14,000 BCE.


Some 300 animal figures are depicted at Lascaux cave; including horses, rhinoceros, lions, buffalo, mammoth, reindeer, ibex, stags, arrochs, a red panther, and an engraved owl.












Lascaux Lamp

Lamp found at Lascaux cave, buried in the floor of the Shaft at Lascaux by l'Abbé Glory, ca.19,000 BCE.
Red sandstone, 8 3/4 inches long by 4 3/16 inches wide and 1 1/4 inches thick.











Artist's rendition of prehistoric scaffolding











Shaft of the Dead Man, Lascaux

The "Shaft of the Dead Man," Rhinoceros, wounded man, and disemboweled bison, Lascaux, ca. 16,000 - 14,000 BCE.























Chauvet Cave,
Vallon-Pont-D'Arc, Ardeche Gorge, France


Jean Marie Chauvet in the cave after its discovery in 1994












Horses and rhinos, Chauvet

Aurochs, horses, and rhinoceroses, wall painting in the Chauvet Cave, France, ca. 30,000 - 28,000 BCE.











Current entrance to Chauvet Cave












Werner Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams











Current entrance to Chauvet Cave











Horses, Chauvet cave
Horses, Chauvet cave painting, ca. 30,000 - 28,000 BCE.











Felines, Chauvet cave,
ca. 30,000 - 28,000 BCE
Bear, Chavuet cave, ca. 30,000 - 28,000 BCE.











Engraved Horse, Chauvet cave, ca. 30,000 - 28,000 BCE.
Engraved Stag, Lascaux, ca. 16,000 - 14,000 BCE.
Similarities between Prehistoric cave markings
  • Abundant and varied images of animals
  • Animals rendered naturalistically and with skill
  • Animals typically illustrated in profile
  • Although figures rendered with exacting detail, no attempt to depict ground or background
  • Tendency to place images high on cave wall surface & out of reach
  • Images of humans are rare
  • When human figure is depicted, it is abstract in comparison to depictions of animals











Cave bear altar at Chauvet
Cave Bear Skull Altar, Chauvet


Animism = the belief that nature is filled with spirits











Womanly form with Bison, Chauvet Cave


Werner Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams

42:30 and 1:07:20











Woman of Willendorf, Austria, ca. 28,000 - 25,000 BCE. Limestone, 4 3/8" high.


More on the Discovery of the Woman of Wilendorf











modern pregnant woman
Woman of Willendorf, ca. 28,000 - 25,000 BCE.











Woman of Willendorf and the Venus of Lespuge,
Mammoth ivory, Height 7 13/16".
Woman from Brassempouy, France, ca. 30,000 BCE. Ivory, height 1 1/4".