Popular Science Monthly/Volume 40/November 1891/The Origin of Painting

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IT is said repeatedly, as of course, that Egypt was the cradle of the arts. Yet archaeologists like Lartet, Garrigue, Cristi, and others have shown that the first artistic manifestations go back to epochs far anterior to the ancient Egyptians. According to these authors, these first manifestations were contemporary with the presence of the reindeer in the south of France—when the mammoth had not yet quite disappeared, and when man, ignorant of the metals, made all his instruments of stone, bone, and wood. In fact, the first works of art, and particularly the first efforts at drawing, date from those prehistoric times. In France, the oldest remains of these works of art have been found, in the shape of drawings engraved with a flint point as ornaments on articles of reindeer-horn, in caves by the side of the fossil remains of animals which, like the mammoth, have since disappeared, or, like the reindeer, have abandoned those regions. Other drawings have been found on tablets of stone, horn, or mammoth-ivory.

It is not our intention to insist on the simply linear rudimentary designs of which these ornaments consist. We rather invite attention to more perfect and characteristic works, in which, according to the words of Carl Vogt, the spirit of observation and imitation of Nature, and especially of living Nature, is remarkably manifested. An image of a mammoth, found in the cave of La Magdelaine, in the Dordogne, is engraved on a tablet of mammoth-bone. Very striking are the ungainly attitude of the animal's massive body, its long hair, the form of its elevated skull, with concave forehead, and its enormous recurved tusks. All these traits, characteristic of this extinct type of pachyderm, are reproduced by the designer with a really artistic distinctness. The mammoth was already rare in Europe when this primitive artist lived; and this, perhaps, is the reason why only two of the numerous designs found in the caves of France are of this animal.[1] The second of these drawings, found in La Lozère, represents a mamoth's head sculptured on a staff of command. The images of the chamois, bear, and ox are found more frequently; hut figures of the reindeer are most numerous. Some are engraved on plates of bone^ and others serve to ornament various objects. Sometimes groups of animals are represented, or, on the other hand, the animals are only partly drawn, and merely the head or head and chest are visible.

The larger part of these drawings do not excel in execution the figures which our school-boys make on walls; but the figures of the reindeer are generally superior on account of the remarkable care with which the characteristic lines of the animal are traced, and also, in examples that are otherwise very rare, by the addition of a few shadows. We conclude that the artist of the caves was particularly interested in the reindeer, which furnished his contemporaries with their principal food, as well as with clothing materials, arms for hunting, and household implements. We know, in fact, that the cave-dwellers lived on reindeer-meat, dressed themselves in its skin, made thread of its tendons, and cut their arrow-points from its bones. In other words, as the reindeer had not yet been domesticated, it stood to those primitive men as a valuable game, and the hunting of it occupied the larger part of their existence. We thus explain why that animal haunted the imagination of the artist of those times. The drawings of the chamois, the bear, and the ox were also often surprisingly exact and really valuable.

Besides these designs of mammals, there have been found in the caves of France a number of drawings of fishes, tolerably correct, but very uniform. According to Broca, they can all be referred to the salmon.

All these relics of the primitive arts of design prove abundantly that the men of that prehistoric age observed carefully the forms and attitudes of animals and were capable of representing them in an exact and elegant style, attesting, according to Broca, a real artistic sense.

Nothing like this has been observed in the reproduction of the human figure, and drawings of that kind are extremely rare. There are two such deserving mention, one of which represents a naked man, armed with a club and surrounded by animals; the second, a fishing scene, a man lancing a harpoon upon a marine animal—a fish according to Broca, a whale according to other authors. The whole of the design is puerile and out of shape, and the proportions are outrageously violated. This is not an exception, for the examination of all the drawings of this kind shows that skillful as were the men of those times in their drawings of animals, particularly of those which were important to them, they were bad delineators of the human figure. "I do not know," says Broca, " what prevented them from reaching perfection on this point, but the fact is indisputable and is certainly characteristic.^ Another no less characteristic point is the entire absence of designs representing plants. No design of a tree has been found, or of a bush or a flower, unless we regard as a flower the " three little rosettes " engraved on a handle of reindeer-horn, which some authors actually regard as a composite flower. This exclusive taste of the artists of the caves is evidently not accidental, for chance explains nothing; and we can not assume, with Carl Vogt, that primitive drawing originated in a general tendency of man toward imitation of living Nature. "We believe that the object of these artistic productions was of a different character, and that they were intended, not for ornamentation of objects or for imitation pure and simple of Nature, but for the production of an instrument to be used in the struggle against Nature. We shall endeavor to substantiate this proposition in what follows, and shall have occasion to say something on the origin of painting in general.

We remark, first, that there is nothing to prove that the man of that time was intellectually superior to existing savages; and, if we observe these, we shall find that their drawings have usually a totally different significance from that which art has among civilized peoples; and that they have nothing in common with ornamentation and æsthetics in general. Indeed, numerous facts go to show that human thought, in the lower degrees of its development, distinguishes but poorly between subjective representations and objective reality, and that both give rise to the same ideas. For example, a savage seeing one of his family in a dream, can not imagine that the image is independent of the organic substance of the person in question; and he will see the same relation between the two as between a body and its image reflected by a surface of water. Thus the Basutos believe that if the shadow of a man is projected upon the water, the crocodiles will be able to seize the man himself. A like identification may be pushed to the point that tribes are known which use the same word for the soul, the image, and the shadow.

It is necessary to take this fact into consideration in order to appreciate the real sense of the primitive design, and to re-establish the conditions under which it originated. If we suppose a material relation between the image and the object as well as between the shadow and the object, it becomes evident that the savage would comport himself similarly toward the image, the shadow, and the object. From his point of view the image and the object are in close relation, and an action upon one wonld operate in the same way upon the other. By this way of looking at things, as Sir John Lubbock says, the savage is convinced that an injury done to the image is inflicted upon the original; or, to use the words of Mr. Taylor, he thinks that by acting upon the copy he will reach the original. The evidences are many that demonstrate the importance attributed by savages to this mode of action on the original. Waitz relates, after Denghame, that in a tribe of western Africa it was dangerous to make a portrait of the natives, because they were afraid that by some kind of sorcery a part of their soul would pass into their image. Lubbock also speaks of the same fear as existing among savages; and the more like the portrait, the greater the danger to the original; for the more life there is in the copy, the less must be left in the person. One day, when some Indians were annoying Dr. Kane by their presence, he rid himself of them very quickly by telling them that he was going to make their portraits. Catlin tells a story, at once sober and comical, that when he was drawing the profile of a chief named Matochiga, the Indians around him seemed greatly moved, and asked him why he did not draw the other half of the chiefs face. "Matochiga was never ashamed to look a white man square in the face." Matochiga had not till then seemed offended at the matter, but one of the Indians said to him sportively: "The Yankee knows that you are only half a man, and he has only drawn half of your face, because the other half is not worth anything." A bloody fight followed this explanation, and Matochiga was killed by a bullet which struck him in the side of the face that had not been drawn. A still more characteristic incident is communicated by M. Brouck concerning a Laplander who had come to visit him from motives of curiosity. He having drunk a glass of wine and seeming very much at ease, M. Brouck took his pencil and began drawing his portrait. AlZ at once our subject's humor changed; he drew on his cap and started to run away. Explanations being had, the Laplander made the rash artist understand that, if he had let him copy his figure, the artist would have gained a dangerous influence over him.

Charlevoix said, in the last century, that the Illinois and Indians of some other tribes made little figures representing persons whose lives they wanted to shorten, and pierced them in the region of the heart. A custom still exists in Borneo that consists in making a figure in wax of the enemy whom one wishes to bewitch, and setting it before the fire to melt; it is assumed, according to Taylor, that the person aimed at is disorganized as fast as his image disappears. The Peruvian sorcerers still proceed in the same way, except that their figures are made of rags. In the Indies, according to Dubois, they knead earth collected from a very salt place with hair or pieces of skin, and make a figure on the chest of which they write the name of an enemy, and then stab it with needles, or mutilate in some way, in the belief that the same harm will be suffered by the person represented.

Traces of this primitive superstition are also found among civilized people, for Grimn reports that in the eleventh century Jews were accused in Europe of having killed Bishop Ebergard by a sorcery of the kind. They were said to have made a figure of wax representing the bishop, hired a priest to baptize it, and put it into the fire. As soon as the wax was melted, the bishop was attacked by a mortal disease. The famous adventurer, Jacob, chief of the Pastorals, in the thirteenth century, seriously believed, as he says in his Demonology, that the devil taught men the att of making images of wax and clay, the destruction of which brought on the sickness and death of the persons they represented. It was a custom in the time of Catharine de' Medici to make such figures of wax, and melt them slowly before the fire or stab them with needles, in order to bring suffering to enemies. This operation was called putting a spell upon them. We may also mention the opinion of the earlier Christian writers, who believed, according to Draper, that painting and sculpture were interdicted in the Scriptures, and were consequently evil arts. It may be questioned if this opinion did not have its roots in the idea of primitive peoples that the art of drawing was an instrument of sorcery, by means of which one acquired the power to act upon a person. Mussulmans still have a horror of images, and the Koran forbids having one's portrait made and possessing any image at all.

We would not exhaust this evidence if we did not cite all the facts that go to prove that, in the mind of primitive man, it was sufficient to possess anything—a piece of the garment, hair, a bit of a nail—that had belonged to a person to have power to act upon him and do him harm. The belief in the efficacy of this means is still so strong among some backward peoples, that persons who have any reason to distrust others hide their clothes so that they shall not be robbed of any part of them. Others, when they cut their hair or nails, put the cut parts on the roofs of their houses or bury them in the ground. So peasants in some countries bury the teeth which they pull from themselves.

We should add, to complete the picture, that writing to the savage enjoys the same magic power as drawing. This is easily understood when we recollect that writing by figures preceded writing by letters or any conventional signs, and is still met among some savage tribes. In these-writings by figures, the fact tliat the man or animal represented is under the influence of an evil lot is indicated by an arrow directed from the mouth toward the heart. A sign of this kind is considered equivalent to a real possession of the animal or person represented.

We could hardly give more convincing proofs of the special significance attributed by the savage to drawing, regarded by him as an instrument of power over another; and while the examples which we have just brought together relate chiefly to man, we may assume logically that the same process—that is, a figured representation of animals—plays a like part in the struggle of the savage against his natural enemies. Other facts exist confirmatory of this hypothesis.

According to Mr. Tanner, the North American Indians, to assure success in their hunting expeditions, made rude drawings of the animal they were pursuing, and stabbed them in the region of the heart, under the conviction that they would thereby obtain power over the desired game. Taylor relates, according to an old observer among the Australians, that the natives, in one of their festival dances, construct a figure of the kangaroo with plants, in order that they may become masters of the real kangaroos of the forest. An Algonkin Indian, going out to kill an animal, hangs up a figure of it in his lodge; then, after giving it due warning, shoots an arrow at it. If the arrow hits, the animal will be killed. If a hunter, having touched a sorcerer's rod with his arrow, succeeded in hitting the track of the animal with the arrow, it would be stopped and held till the hunter could come up to it. The same object could be attained by drawing the figure of the animal on a piece of wood and addressing suitable prayers to the image.

Such was the function of drawing at its origin. An Indian song admirably explains this function, in the words "My drawing has made a god of me!" Faith could hardly be more vigorously expressed in the power of the art of drawing as an instrument by the aid of which primitive man obtained a supernatural power over his enemy or his game. Regarding the works of the cave men in the light of these facts, we perceive that the purpose that inspired them had few points in common with the sense of the beautiful or the tendency to imitation; and it is clear that if there existed in the mind of the primitive man a material relation between a being and its shadow or its image, that man thought that the same relation was preserved between the being and its image when transferred to any object whatever. The purpose to be reached was to possess the shadow of the coveted object, and the only means of accomplishing it was to fix upon something or another the silhouette of that shadow.

This, in our opinion, was the origin of drawing, and, consequently, of painting. It is worthy of remark that all works of this kind derived from the embryonic period of the arts of design betray the same lack of proportion and absence of symmetry characteristic of the silhouettes of shadows. The uniform impression given by the drawings is that they relate, not to the objects themselves, but to their shadows. It is further interesting to note that some contemporary savages, some Australians, for example, are still incapable of grasping the meaning of exact images, while they readily comprehend a crude, disproportioned drawing. Thus, to give them an idea of a man, you have to draw him with a very large head; a feature with which precisely corresponds a drawing representing a fisherman that has been found in a cave in France. He has a greatly reduced body, but his hand, armed with an enormous harpoon, is the hand of a giant.

In his struggle with surrounding Nature, a struggle of which he can not form an exact conception, primitive man had especial need to possess every means that could give him confidence in victory. In starting for the hunt he took with him, as the North American Indian does now, and as some players in our most civilized circles do under another form, the fetich that would insure success—that of an image of the animal to be killed. By engraving on the handle of his knife the image of a reindeer or some other animal, he did not think of ornamenting his weapon, but of exerting some magic power over his prey. And his belief in this mysterious power, by giving him boldness, energy, and sureness of movements, would often procure him success. Confidence does thus in all things. Just like the modern savage, the cave man would believe that the greater the resemblance between the image and the animal, the greater also would be the chance of acting upon the animal. Hence the care that was applied to the reproduction of the animals especially coveted and with which the contest would be hardest; and hence those perfect designs of the reindeer, that magnificent game of our ancestors.[2]

Very different are the characteristics of the drawings of human forms; and, to account for these differences, we should consider the fact that all the archæological data relative to the epoch of the reindeer testify that the disposition of the man of that age was pacific. Broca calls these men "peaceful hunters" and attributes a gentle character to them. He remarks that an examination of their arsenal very rarely brings out warlike arms, and that we can thus satisfy ourselves of their peaceful character. The Belgian archæologist, M. Dupont, observes that the cave-dwellers of his country had no idea of war. And, if we have a right to compare the existing savage with primitive man, we find that the Eskimo, who is nearest like him, is quiet and peaceful. The Eskimo whom Ross met on the shores of Baffin's Bay could not be made to understand what war is, and possessed no warlike weapons. While, then, we may believe that the cave men rarely raised their hands against one another, it nevertheless remains determined that they waged a bitter and relentless war against animals. Hence they rarely had occasion to exercise themselves in drawing the human form; and hence the imperfect character of their human images as compared with those of animals. As to the forms of plants, it may be remarked that the boreal flora of that epoch, not being at all threatening, could furnish little food for superstition; and no drawings of plants are found in the caves.

In short, the condition of the art of drawing with primitive man seems to be in complete harmony with the meaning which we have attributed to drawing itself, of its being inspired by belief in the existence of a material relation between a being and its image and in the possibility of acting on the first through the second. Consequently, the principle of painting can not be found in a natural tendency of primitive man to the artificial imitation of living Nature, but seems rather to be derived from the desire of subjecting that Nature to its needs, and of subjugating it. In the course of its progressive improvements, the art of drawing has gradually lost its primitive significance and original meaning, till it has become what it is now. It does not differ much, however, from what it was originally; for, while the primitive man expected to reach the living being in its image, it is still life which the civilized man seeks to-day in works of art.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.


Dr. Peters, the African traveler, believes that the Waganda, or people of Uganda, are descended from the ancient Egyptians; and some color is apparently lent to his view by the burial of their kings in mounds, the custom of embalming, and the existence of ancient rock excavations. But the Waganda might have borrowed these things from their northern neighbors. Dr. Peters observes that they undoubtedly excel every other African nation in the development of llieir intelligence, and that, in contrast to all other negro tribes, they feel the need of progress. It is believed that in the oldest of the burial mounds are interred records of the dead sovereigns that will explain the origin of the race; but at present the Waganda will not allow a search to be made.
  1. Similar linear ornaments have been found in the caves in Belgium, and are referred by Dupont to the age of the mammoth.
  2. In this I differ from the students who find in some of these drawings evidence that the reindeer was a domesticated animal at that time. A representation of two reindeer has been found at Lozère, one of which wears what is regarded as a kind of halter. But the absence of fossil remains of dogs, without which domestication of the reindeer is impossible, pleads, as Carl Vogt remarks, against the existence of the domesticated reindeer. In my opinion, this supposed halter represents rather the emblematic line of which I have spoken, proceeding from the mouth to the heart, indicating the enchantment thrown at the animal by the hunter.