The human hand has been at the center of visual art history not just as the main tool of creation, but also as an important focus of representation, revealing the development of artistic skills and cultural trends in key periods.
Actually, painted hands may be the oldest form of art in human history.
The most fascinating cave art in this regard is found in Argentina, in the Cueva de las Manos, which literally means “Cave of Hands.” According to the UNESCO World Heritage Center, the earliest wall paintings in those caves were created about 13,000 years ago and the last ones about 9,500 years ago.
Cueva de las Manos, c. 11000 BC — Photo by wiki user Mariano
To go back even further, a hand marking in caves on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi has recently been dated to about 40,000 years ago, suggesting that representing the hand was one of the first artistic impulses of Homo Sapiens.
Hand marking, Sulawesi caves — Source: theguardian.com
Images of hands remained mostly flat and stylized for thousands of years, including in Ancient Greece and medieval Europe.
Dokimasia Painter, Ancient Greek “Killing of Agamemnon” mixing bowl — detail, 5th century BC, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Illumination in Vidal Mayor Manuscript — detail, c.1290, Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Then the Renaissance art revolution changed everything, with artists like Leonardo da Vinci studying the human body from both an artistic and scientific point of view.
Leonardo da Vinci, Study of Hands, c. 1474, Royal Collection Trust, Windsor Castle
Leonardo da Vinci, anatomical sketches, c. 1510, Royal Collection Trust
Leonardo da Vinci, anatomical sketches — detail, c. 1510, Royal Collection Trust
This period gave us the most reproduced pair of hands in the West:
Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam — detail, c.1512, Sistine Chapel, Vatican City
As well as other stunning representations and studies:
Sandro Botticelli, Magnificat Madonna — detail, 1481, Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Albrecht Dürer, Praying Hands, c.1508, Albertina Museum, Vienna
Quentin Metsys, The Lender and his Wife, 1514, Louvre Museum, Paris
Quentin Metsys, The Lender and his Wife — detail, 1514, Louvre Museum, Paris
Raphael, Upraised Right Hand, with Palm Facing Outward: Study for Saint Peter, c.1518, Art Institute of Chicago
A similar attention to detail is found all the way until the mid-19th century, with variations according to social trends and fashion.
Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun, Self-portrait in a Straw Hat, 1782, National Gallery, London
Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun, Self-portrait in a Straw Hat — detail, 1782, National Gallery, London
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Hand Study, c.1827, Fine Arts Museum, Lyon
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Comtesse d’Haussonville — detail, 1845, Frick Collection, New York
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Princesse de Broglie — detail, c.1851, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Then in the 20th century, Western art questions itself, its history, its nature, and the hand is inevitably part of that reflection:
M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands, 1948
Giorgio de Chirico, Metaphysical Interior with Hand of David, 1968, Fondazione Giorgio e Isa de Chirico, Rome
And after all this time, the prehistoric impulse to leave a hand print on a wall is still with us:
Sally Morgan Designs, Hand Print, 2010