Saturday, March 15, 2014


Reindeer in Lascaux.

It has long been held that in prehistoric rock art there is no “art for art’s sake,” meaning that art was created for a reason other than purely decorative or aesthetic. Whether or not that is always true is a subject for another time, but there is one implication of this that I want to discuss. It is that if the art is for another reason than “art’s sake” it is probably not done subject to the same motives that drive a modern artist, particularly a desire to maximize the impact of the image by adjusting elements to attract attention and focus. In other words I, as the artist, attempt to control my image to elicit the most emotional effect from the viewer. This does not always provide an entirely realistic record as I make adjustments to the reality that I see to create the effects I desire. If this is not the motive of the prehistoric artist then we might suspect that in many ways their imagery is actually more realistic or accurate in detail than my modern counterpart would be.

Aurochs from Lascaux with raised right front foot.

This was indeed the conclusion found in a 2009 study by Gabor Horvath, a researcher from Eotvos University in Hungary, reported on LiveScience by Stephanie Pappas. They found that "cavemen, or people living during the upper Paleolithic period between 10,000 and 50,000 years ago, were more accurate in their depictions of four-legged animals walking than artists are today. While modern artists portray these animals walking incorrectly 57.9 percent of the time, prehistoric cave painters only made mistakes 46.2 percent of the time.” (Pappas 2012)

“Observing carefully, scientists found that “four-legged animals walk by moving their legs in the same sequence. First, the left-hind foot hits the ground, then the left-front foot, followed by the right hind-foot and finally the right front-foot. Only the speed at which four-legged animals complete this sequence differs. But this simple gait often escapes the notice of artists.” (Pappas 2012)

Gabor and his researchers, “found that 63.6 percent of the animals depicted in anatomy textbooks were drawn in impossible gaits. Half of toy horses, lions, tigers, and other quadrupeds were also wrong. Even depictions in natural history museums failed much of the time: Just over 41 percent of those showed errors.” (Pappas 2012)

Then, “Horvath and his colleagues wanted to look at the same question over the history of art. In the 1880s, photographer Edward Muybridge used motion pictures to show how horses and other quadrupeds really walked. This knowledge spread, so Horvath and his colleagues split their analysis into three time periods: prehistoric art, historical art made before Muybridge's work, and art made after 1887, when Muybridge's work would have been public.” (Pappas 2012)

A. Horse by Leonardo da Vinci, B. Outline of Leonardo's horse,
C. One option for correcting Leonardo's horse, D. Another 
option for correcting Leonardo's horse.

“The researchers plucked 1,000 examples of art from online collections, fine art books and Hungarian museums as well as on stamps and coins. Chance alone would dictate that artists mess up depictions of four-legged gait 73.3 percent of the time, researchers calculated. But art produced after prehistory but before Muybridge showed more errors than chance would allow. In fact, 83.5 percent of depictions from this time period were wrong. The erroneous drawings even included one sketch of a horse by Leonardo da Vinci, known for his anatomical sketches. In the sketch, the horse has its right-hind foot and left-front foot down with its other two feet lifted, and in an unstable position. In fact, four-legged animals keep three legs on the ground at any given time. It’s possible that the high level of pre-Muybridge errors may reflect artists mimicking their peers un-anatomical work, the researchers wrote. But Paleolithic man seems to have been a keen observer of four-footed fauna. Cave art got its depictions right about 54 percent of the time, far better than chance.” (Pappas 2012)

In other words, according to Horvath, in Leonardo’s drawing (A) only one foot should be lifted from the ground. Either the left-hind foot (C) or the right-front foot (D), not both (B). Now we have to be careful to point out that these facts refer to walking animals; trotting, galloping, or running is a different situation entirely, but we can generally tell from a depiction whether the animal pictured is meant to be walking or running. These situations can be illustrated with any of a number of animal paintings from Lascaux cave in France.

Lascaux horse showing foreshortening
in the positions of the feet.

There is, however, another factor which Horvath apparently overlooked (or at least I did not find it addressed in the reports about his study) - foreshortening. Because of perspective if we look at an animal standing on its four legs and our eye level is above the ground, the two farther legs appear to end higher up than the nearer ones, in other words an object farther away will simply look smaller. This is foreshortening. In many of the Lascaux painted animals illustrated we can imagine a ground plane in which a foot that is drawn higher on the rock would actually be portraying a situation where the foot is solidly implanted on the ground but demonstrating foreshortening. This can be seen as a possibility in many of the animals portrayed in Lascaux and other caves, as well as in more recent examples of art, and if Horvath and his team did not take it into account their results could be incomplete. In other words, more of the animals in Paleolithic cave paintings would be standing in correct stances than Horvath recorded.

Otherwise, the art done by artists in our western cultural heritage is often wrong in anatomical details that Paleolithic artist more often got correct. This analysis can be seen as backing up the supposition that there is no “art for art’s sake” in rock art as they were supposedly not making alterations to enhance the drama or beauty of their images.


Pappas, Stephanie, Senior writer,
2012    Cavemen Trump Modern Artists at Drawing Animals,

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