The story of French art starts with the cave paintings.
Frequently painted in dark, damp conditions, the cave paintings were (and are) an astonishing achievement.
Dating back 25,000 years, possibly even 30,000 years, the paintings most commonly represented animals - often the animals that were being hunted at that time, but sometimes invented animals or mythical creatures. Frequently the paintings are of animals that are no longer found in France, such as the bison.
The role of the prehistoric cave paintings is not always clear - whether they were simply decorative or they played a role in primitive religion perhaps. The truth will probably never be known. Across France there are several locations where very fine examples have been found.
The best know of all is perhaps Lascaux Caves in the Dordogne, famously discovered by a group of boys searching for their dog. These are likely to date back 16,000 years.
Other decorated cave systems are at:
- Pech Merle near Cahors. Dating back further than Lascaux, possibly 25,000 years, there are numerous paintings of a wide range of animals on a deep cave system that runs for more than a kilometre into the hillside
- Cosquer Cave near Marseille, now with an entrance that is under the sea, is thought to have been occupied 27,000 years ago and again 18,000 years ago. notable especially is the presence of paintings of marine animals at Cosquer.
- Chauvet cave, in the Ardeche, is one of the most extensive and decorated (known) cave systems in France. Unusual here among cave paintings is the presence of animals such as lions and bears. It is probable that these are the oldest cave paintings known in France, perhaps dating from 30,000 years ago:
- the 'Trois-Frères' cave in the Ariège department of the Midi-Pyrénées is more recently decorated than the caves mentioned above - about 13,000 years ago. The most notable painting at the cave is called 'the sorceror' and represents a creature, half-man half-animal, that is perhaps part of a sacred ritual that was once performed.
Not all caves can be visited unfortunately, because the breath of visitors damages the cave paintings. Some caves have very restricted visitor access, and Lascaux has no access to the original caves but a meticulously prepared reproduction of the cave system can be seen on an adjacent site, Lascaux II - original tools and materials were used in the reproduction.