France has a habit of inspiring great art – from homegrown talent such as Cezanne and Monet, to visiting legends such as Van Gogh and Picasso. But in the Dordogne, this artistic heritage runs even deeper. Before impressionism, before romanticism, before Renaissance art and predating even the early religious imagery, there was the cave art of Lascaux.
Estimated to be approximately 17,300 years old, the crude cave wall paintings date back to the Palaeolithic time, and are the first known works of art to be created by the human race.
They depict images which are still familiar to us today – horses, bulls, stags, countryside and, of course, humans. Stone carvings and coloured minerals are used to paint the cave walls, and almost 2,000 images have been identified, although most have now deteriorated beyond recognition.
Situated around 50km east of Périgueux, the Lascaux Caves are nestled in a hilly area beside the small French village of Montignac. For art lovers and history fans, it is a must-see. Since 1979, the caves have been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and preservation work is frequently undertaken. Before you visit, check ahead to make sure the caves are open to the public, and if possible, bring along a tour guide to talk you through the many different interpretations of the paintings (which range from a prehistoric astrology chart, to trance-induced hallucinations).
Of course, there is no shortage of more modern art around the Dordogne area. In the city of Périgueux, the Perigord Museum of Art and Archaeology (MAAP) showcases a huge collection of art and sculpture from the prehistory era, right through to the present day.
Smaller galleries such as the Galerie d’Art du Passage à Périgueux or Galerie L’App Art present more experimental, contemporary art works, which are juxtaposed against the ornate medieval architecture of Dordogne’s towns and cities.
Or of course, you could pick up a paintbrush yourself and discover first-hand what made this little corner of France such a perennial art centre. Grab a canvas, set yourself up by the river and create something that your descendants can find in another 17,300 years’ time.
By John Cummings of French Maison