Abbé Henri Breuil (28 February 1877 – 14 August 1961) was a French Catholic priest, archaeologist and paleontologist, sometimes called “Father of Prehistory” and famous for his studies of prehistoric cave art. He was the first to record the first cave art discovered in the Dordogne region in France in 1901 and 1902. He authenticated them as late Paleolithic (Magdalenian) and then copied the images, engraved onto the wall.
He was also the first to render color illustrations from the paintings in the Altamira caves (near Santander, Spain), presented to the public in 1906. The paintings in the cave had been discovered already in 1879, but the archaeological community considered them as forgery. Only in 1902, it was finally realized, that the Altamira cave paintings were genuine and the earliest paleolithic cave paintings.
Through his recording of the details of such art he was able to develop a system, which has continued to be useful, to analyze the styles of art and the time periods in which they were produced, as well as interpret the meaning underlying the images. His imaginative writings, combined with beautiful illustrations, inspired readers and were instrumental in bringing the art of ancient peoples to the attention of the world.
Among his many important contributions to the field was a system of classification and chronology that he assigned to objects of art from the Ice Age. In particular, his paper “Les Subdivisions du Paléolithique supérieur et leur signification” (1912; “The Subdivisions of the Upper Paleolithic and Their Meaning”) established for the period a classification system that is of enduring value.
In 1940, the Lascaux caves were discovered and Abbé Breuil was asked to visit and investigate. He provided a summary description of the paintings, working there in 1940, and again in 1949 and following years.
Abbé Breuil also was a good friend and mentor of Dorothy Garrod.
Cave paintings: Linda Hall, Henri Breuil