Tableaux Vivant: History and Practice

Students creating a tableau at the Met. Photo by Don Pollard.

Students creating a tableau at the Met. Photo by Don Pollard.

With the growing popularity of kinesthetic teaching strategies, I frequently hear the term ‘tableaux vivant’ thrown around. How does the activity actually work, and where did it come from? A close look at the history of the practice illuminates this powerful tool for education and community building.

Tableaux vivant is often referred to as a playful pastime, but it has also provided a great amount of purpose in the cultural history of the United States. Translated from French, tableaux vivant means ‘living pictures.’ The genre peaked in popularity between 1830 and 1920. During a performance of tableaux vivant, a cast of characters represented scenes from literature, art, history, or everyday life on a stage. After the curtain went up, the models remained silent and frozen for roughly thirty seconds. Particular emphasis was placed on staging, pose, costume, make-up, lighting, and the facial expression of the models. Sometimes a poem or music accompanied the scene, and often a large wooden frame outlined the perimeter of the stage, so as to reference the frame of a painted canvas.

In Victorian England, people used tableaux vivant as a parlor game to amuse guests and engage them in a deeper appreciation of art. The initial interest in the genre in the United States teetered between the desire for aesthetic entertainment and the desire to catch a glimpse of the female nude. The historian Jack McCullogh researched the popularity of tableaux vivant on the stages of New York City. Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, for example, was a famous tableau that fell somewhere between artistry and indecency, so much so that models were occasionally arrested if they revealed too much skin. Even with the controversy, many critics hailed the performances for their skill and value:

It is a pleasure to find that, although many nude pictures are realized, there is not a suspicion of indelicacy about the entire show… These pictures, besides affording pleasure to the public, are calculated to educate the public taste. (as cited in McCullogh, 134)

Actress Hedwig Reicher as "Columbia" with other suffrage pageant participants, 1913. Library of Congress.

Actress Hedwig Reicher as “Columbia” with other suffrage pageant participants, 1913. Library of Congress.

During the later part of the 19th century, tableaux vivant spread throughout the United States via the publication of how-to manuals. The genre was primarily used by youthful Americans as a way to discover their group and individual identities. The historian David Glassberg wrote about how tableaux vivant was used in local pageantry. Small towns and cities would often host parades featuring floats carrying women in tableaux vivant, reenacting pilgrim scenes or allegorical scenes such as “Columbia,” or “the Thirteen Original States.” Monika Elbert focused on how the growing middle class of women used tableaux vivant to alter their personal identities. She explored how women used the genre privately to try on new costumes and characters, some of which were controversial, as a way to merge their public and private self. In both cases, the action of creating tableaux vivant allowed people to explore new phases of their identity.

During the early 20th century, tableaux vivant was used as a form of protest. It was an especially fitting genre for women to use during suffrage protests because it was a familiar form of expression for them. They took on many poses from art including Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc and Raphael’s Madonna to symbolically convey their desire for women’s right vote. Other minority groups used tableaux vivant as a form of protest. In 1913 textile workers from Patterson, New Jersey protested poor working conditions in a pageant at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Also in 1913, W.E.B. DuBois directed The Star of Ethiopia, a pageant to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. A still and quiet performance might not seem like a choice activity for a protest, but it likely etched a lasting impression in the minds of audiences and performers, an impression that could inspire change. When cinema became popular, the heyday of tableaux vivant ended. In many ways, though, the genre has found its way into modern photography and performance art.

Teaching in the Galleries with Tableaux Vivant

Tableaux vivant is a terrific tool to engage students during a museum tour. I’ve found that the activity not only speaks to kinesthetic learners, but it activates the imaginations of everyone involved. During a recent tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I brought a group of students to Gustav Courbet’s Young Ladies of the Village. I had volunteer students freeze in the scene, and the other students help them find their positions with greater detail. The activity brought exactly what I wanted: more details. We engaged in a lengthier discussion about the peasant girl and her relationship with the well-dressed women.

Here are some of the basics to keep in mind when developing tableaux vivant activities during your museum tour with students:

  1. Identity: In front of a sculpture or painting, invite your students to slowly take on the pose and facial expression of the subject. Have them freeze for a few seconds and guide their awareness to various parts of their body to make adjustments based on what they see. Break from the pose and look back at the painting or sculpture. Discuss how the pose and facial expression reveal clues to the subject’s identity. Try another tableau vivant, but this time, have students change their pose and facial expression. What would they change or do differently?
  2. Character: The addition of props and costumes can instantly help a student take on a character. Split your class up into actors and directors. Have the actors freeze in a scene from a painting or sculpture, while the directors instruct their poses and facial expressions using the work of art as reference. While the actors remain frozen, have the directors discuss new aspects of the work of art that were revealed to them in the process of creating the tableau vivant. Have the actors break their pose and share their new insights about the work of art now that they’ve become the character.
  3. Narrative: Break students up into small groups. Invite each group to create a tableau vivant (perhaps using directors and actors depending on numbers). Then, ask each group to create a before and after tableau vivant scene. Have each group share their three tableau vivant scenes and then discuss which parts of the painting or sculpture influenced their narratives.
  4. Politics: Briefly describe the genre of tableaux vivant to students and explain how a piece of literature was often read to an audience during the performance. Invite students to create a tableau vivant of a painting or sculpture. While students remain frozen, read a text that provides contextual information for the work of art, such as a historic speech or a quote from the artist. Look back at the painting or sculpture and discuss their new insights.
  5. Abstraction: While not a conventional tableau vivant, providing students an opportunity to take on shapes of an abstract painting or sculpture can help them look closer at forms and composition. Twists and turns of the body, or spatial relationships between students can invite new insights into the work of art.

Are you using tableau vivant or related kinesthetic strategies at your museums?  If so, let us know your tips and techniques.  If not, try this out, and let us know how it works. Add to the conversation and share your thoughts below.

Works Cited:

Elbert, Monika, “Striking a Historical Pose: Antebellum Tableaux Vivants, ‘Godey’s’ illustrations, and Margaret Fuller’s heroines,” The New England Quarterly 75 (2002): 235-75.

Glassberg, David, American Historical Pageantry (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 106-56.

McCullough, Jack, Living Pictures on the New York Stage (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981).

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About Shannon Murphy

New York City artist and museum educator

12 comments

  1. Thank you! Our theatre program will love this!

  2. I love using this type of technique in my gallery teaching. I have practiced this at The Blanton Museum of Art, in Austin, and I am now using it at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. The first time I used this technique I was trying to get fourth and fifth graders to understand a complicated facial expression. I asked each child to assume the pose and facial expression of the subject, and then we talked about how they felt. This caused the group to focus on small details, and allowed us to discuss them at length.
    This is a great technique because it allows the group to embody the action and the emotions of the subjects. It also has the potential to engage different types of learners.
    For this technique to be successful, I have found that delivering the directions clearly is very important, as well as giving the participants ample time to complete the task of careful looking, posing, and looking again. This can bring out some really great discussions around works of art.

    • Hi Andrea, I’ve been experimenting with my delivery of this activity lately, and couldn’t agree more about needing to give very clear instructions. I’ve even tried breathing exercises to calm the body and prepare it for movement. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I have a blog called the Gang from West End. They are my writing muses and logo. The blog is historical in nature and most recently has been featuring Kate Roosevelt, a New York City matron who attends the theater, concerts and museum presentations on a daily basis. Yesterday she was at the Liberty Theater, today is is going to a Tableaux focusing on Women’s Suffrage.
    I am going to put a link to your site in it today…….www.sharonhazardauthor.com
    sharonhaz@aol.com

    • Hi Sharon, How interesting that Kate Roosevelt attended the suffrage event for it’s artistry. It was fashionable for socialites to create lavish evenings of tableaux vivant for suffrage and other causes. I’d love to hear more about Kate’s response to it. I will write you an email.

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