Henri Edouard Prosper Breuil

The French archeologist Henri Édouard Prosper Breuil (1877-1961) was a pioneer in the field of prehistoric archeology. He is especially known for his analysis of prehistoric cave paintings.

Henri Breuil was born on Feb. 28, 1877, at Mortain, Manche Department. After completing his theological studies, he was ordained a priest in 1900. He became professor of science at the seminary of Issy-les-Moulineaux.

Breuil's interest in Paleolithic art began with his study of Bronze Age sites near his hometown and in the region of Paris. He was an excellent draftsman and spent much time copying the remains of Paleolithic art in caverns. He reproduced them in color and related the style and color of the paintings to established periods of Paleolithic cultures for which generally accurate dating was possible. By this careful synchronology he gradually developed an analytic power which enabled him to classify authoritatively the Paleolithic cave paintings of France and Spain.

The earliest and perhaps most famous classification and reproduction by Breuil concerned the Altamira cave paintings. They had been discovered in 1868 but had been decried either as forgeries or as very late Roman crudities. Breuil showed that they were genuine Paleolithic art on the basis of his previous studies of Paleolithic paintings at Font-de-Gaume and Les Combarelles. His copies of the Altamira paintings were published by the Institut de Paléontologie Humaine in 1908. In his analysis of the Altamira paintings, he assigned the hands, silhouettes, and tectiforms to the Aurignacian period. He estimated that the monochromes in semirelief belonged to the lower Magdalenian; the polychromes seemed to him to come from the upper Magdalenian period.

Breuil was lecturer in prehistory and ethnography at the University of Fribourg (1905-1910), professor of prehistoric ethnography at the Institut de Paléontologie Humaine (1910-1929), and professor of prehistoric art at the collège de France (1929-1947). He was made a member of the Institut de France in 1938. After World War II he spent close to six years traveling in Rhodesia, South Africa, and South-West Africa, examining thousands of rock shelters and copying the art.

Authorities acknowledged Breuil's archaeological modification of various periods of the early Paleolithic era as substantial and accurate. He not only developed a copying technique and a synchronology for dating the cave paintings but also contributed in large part to the technical vocabulary of the branch of paleontology dealing with primitive art. He refrained from any interpretive treatment of the painting, never drawing unwarranted conclusions concerning the religious ideas or the social mentality of the primitive painters. He died on Aug. 14, 1961, at L'Isle-Adam, Seine-et-Oise Department.

Further Reading on Henri Edouard Prosper Breuil

The only biography of Breuil in English is Alan Houghton Broderick, Father of Prehistory (1963). See also André Leroi-Gourhan, Treasures of Prehistoric Art (1967).

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