Tableau vivant

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Outdoor tableau vivant about gold mining in Paramaribo, 1892 Tropenmuseum Royal Tropical Institute Objectnumber 60006559 Tableau vivant voorstellende de Goudd.jpg
Outdoor tableau vivant about gold mining in Paramaribo, 1892

A tableau vivant (often shortened to tableau, plural: tableaux vivants), French for 'living picture', is a static scene containing one or more actors or models. They are stationary and silent, usually in costume, carefully posed, with props and/or scenery, and may be theatrically lit. It thus combines aspects of theatre and the visual arts.

French language Romance language

French is a Romance language of the Indo-European family. It descended from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman Empire, as did all Romance languages. French evolved from Gallo-Romance, the spoken Latin in Gaul, and more specifically in Northern Gaul. Its closest relatives are the other langues d'oïl—languages historically spoken in northern France and in southern Belgium, which French (Francien) has largely supplanted. French was also influenced by native Celtic languages of Northern Roman Gaul like Gallia Belgica and by the (Germanic) Frankish language of the post-Roman Frankish invaders. Today, owing to France's past overseas expansion, there are numerous French-based creole languages, most notably Haitian Creole. A French-speaking person or nation may be referred to as Francophone in both English and French.

Theatre Collaborative form of performing art

Theatre or theater is a collaborative form of fine art that uses live performers, typically actors or actresses, to present the experience of a real or imagined event before a live audience in a specific place, often a stage. The performers may communicate this experience to the audience through combinations of gesture, speech, song, music, and dance. Elements of art, such as painted scenery and stagecraft such as lighting are used to enhance the physicality, presence and immediacy of the experience. The specific place of the performance is also named by the word "theatre" as derived from the Ancient Greek θέατρον, itself from θεάομαι.


A tableau may either be 'performed' live, or depicted in painting, photography and sculpture, such as in many works of the Romantic, Aesthetic, Symbolist, Pre-Raphaelite, and Art Nouveau movements.

Painting Practice of applying paint, pigment, color or other medium to a surface

Painting is the practice of applying paint, pigment, color or other medium to a solid surface. The medium is commonly applied to the base with a brush, but other implements, such as knives, sponges, and airbrushes, can be used. The final work is also called a painting.

Photography Art, science and practice of creating durable images by recording light or other electromagnetic radiation

Photography is the art, application and practice of creating durable images by recording light or other electromagnetic radiation, either electronically by means of an image sensor, or chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as photographic film. It is employed in many fields of science, manufacturing, and business, as well as its more direct uses for art, film and video production, recreational purposes, hobby, and mass communication.

Sculpture Branch of the visual arts that operates in three dimensions

Sculpture is the branch of the visual arts that operates in three dimensions. It is one of the plastic arts. Durable sculptural processes originally used carving and modelling, in stone, metal, ceramics, wood and other materials but, since Modernism, there has been an almost complete freedom of materials and process. A wide variety of materials may be worked by removal such as carving, assembled by welding or modelling, or molded or cast.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, tableaux sometimes featured poses plastiques ('flexible poses') by virtually nude models, providing a form of erotic entertainment, both on stage and in print.

Erotica Media, literature or art dealing substantively with erotically stimulating or sexually arousing subject matter

Erotica is any artistic work that deals substantively with subject matter that is erotically stimulating or sexually arousing but is not pornographic. Erotic art may use any artistic form to depict erotic content, including painting, sculpture, drama, film or music. Erotic literature and erotic photography have become genres in their own right.

Tableaux continue to the present day in the form of living statues, street performers who busk by posing in costume.


Occasionally, a Mass was punctuated with short dramatic scenes and painting-like tableaux. They were a major feature of festivities for royal weddings, coronations and royal entries into cities. Often the actors imitated statues or paintings, much in the manner of modern street entertainers, but in larger groups, and mounted on elaborate temporary stands along the path of the main procession. [1]

Mass (liturgy) type of worship service within many Christian denomination

Mass is the main eucharistic liturgical service in many forms of Western Christianity. The term Mass is commonly used in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, as well as in some Lutheran, Methodist, Western Rite Orthodox, and Old Catholic churches.

The history of Western visual arts in general, until the modern era, has had a focus on symbolic, arranged presentation, and (aside from direct personal portraiture) was heavily dependent on stationary artists' models in costume – essentially small-scale tableaux vivants with the artist as temporary audience. The Realism movement, with more naturalistic depictions, did not begin until the mid-19th century, a direct reaction against Romanticism and its heavy dependence on stylized tableau format.

Realism (art movement) French painting movement

Realism was an artistic movement that emerged in France in the 1840s, around the 1848 Revolution. Realists rejected Romanticism, which had dominated French literature and art since the early 19th century. Realism revolted against the exotic subject matter and the exaggerated emotionalism and drama of the Romantic movement. Instead, it sought to portray real and typical contemporary people and situations with truth and accuracy, and not avoiding unpleasant or sordid aspects of life. The movement aimed to focus on unidealized subjects and events that were previously rejected in art work. Realist works depicted people of all classes in situations that arise in ordinary life, and often reflected the changes brought by the Industrial and Commercial Revolutions. Realism was primarily concerned with how things appeared to the eye, rather than containing ideal representations of the world. The popularity of such "realistic" works grew with the introduction of photography—a new visual source that created a desire for people to produce representations which look objectively real.

On stage

Postcard with Olga Desmond Schonheitsabende Tableau vivant by Olga Desmond. 01.jpg
Postcard with Olga Desmond Schönheitsabende

Before radio, film and television, tableaux vivants were popular forms of entertainment, even in frontier towns. [2] Before the age of color reproduction of images, the tableau was sometimes used to recreate artworks on stage, based on an etching or sketch of a painting. This could be done as an amateur venture in a drawing room, or as a more professionally produced series of tableaux presented on a theatre stage, one following another, usually to tell a story without requiring all the usual trappings and production of a full theatre performance. They thus influenced the form taken by later Victorian and Edwardian era magic lantern shows, and perhaps also sequential narrative comic strips (which first appeared in modern form in the late 1890s).

Tableaux vivants were often performed as the basis for school Nativity plays in England during the Victorian period; the custom is still practiced at Loughborough High School (believed to be one of England's oldest grammar schools for girls). Several tableaux are performed each year at the school carol service, including the depiction of an engraving en grisaille (in which the subjects are painted and dressed completely grey).

Theatrical censorship in Britain and the United States forbade actresses to move when nude or semi-nude on stage, so tableaux vivants had a place in risqué entertainment for many years. In the early 1900s, German dancer Olga Desmond appeared in Schönheitsabende ('Evenings of Beauty') in which she posed nude in "living pictures", imitating classical works of art.

In the nineteenth century, tableaux vivants took such titles as "Nymphs Bathing" and "Diana the Huntress" and were to be found at such places as the Hall of Rome in Great Windmill Street, London. Other venues were the Coal Hole in the Strand and the Cyder Cellar in Maiden Lane. Nude and semi-nude poses plastiques were also a frequent feature of variety shows in the US: first on Broadway in New York City, then elsewhere in the country. The Ziegfeld Follies featured such tableaux from 1917. The Windmill Theatre in London (1932–1964) featured nude poses plastiques on stage; it was the first, and for many years the only, venue for them in 20th-century London.

Tableaux vivants were often included in fairground sideshows (as seen in the 1961 film A Taste of Honey ). Such shows had largely died out by the 1970s. Tableaux remain a major attraction at the annual Pageant of the Masters in Laguna Beach, California. [3]

Photographic tableaux

Jean-François Chevrier was the first to use the term tableau in relation to a form of art photography, which began in the 1970s and 1980s in an essay titled "The Adventures of the Picture Form in the History of Photography" in 1989. [4] The initial translation of this text substitutes the English word picture for the French word tableau. However Michael Fried retains the French term when referring to Chevrier's essay, because according to Fried (2008), there is no direct translation into English for tableau in this sense. While picture is similar, "... it lacks the connotations of constructedness, of being the product of an intellectual act that the French word carries." (p. 146) [5] Other texts [6] [7] and Clement Greenberg's theory of medium specificity also cover this topic.

The key characteristics of the contemporary photographic tableau according to Chevrier are, firstly:

"They are designed and produced for the wall. summoning a confrontational experience on the part of the spectator that sharply contrasts with the habitual processes of appropriation and projection whereby photographic images are normally received and "consumed" (p. 116) [4]

By this, Chevrier notes that scale and size is obviously important if the pictures are to "hold the wall". But size has another function; it distances the viewer from the object, requiring one to stand back from the picture to take it all in. This "confrontational" experience, Fried notes, [5] is actually quite a large break from the conventional reception of photography, which up to that point was often consumed in books or magazines.

The photographic tableau has its roots not in the theatrical tableau vivant, but in pictorialist photography, such as that of Alfred Stieglitz, a movement with its roots in Aestheticism, which already made heavy use of the tableau as a non-theatrical visual art style. Pictorialism, according to Jeff Wall [7] could be seen as an attempt by photographers to imitate painting (perhaps unsuccessfully):

"Pictorialist photography was dazzled by the spectacle of Western painting and attempted, to some extent, to imitate it in acts of pure composition. Lacking the means to make the surface of its pictures unpredictable and important, the first phase of Pictorialism, Stieglitz's phase, emulated the fine graphic arts, re-invented the beautiful look, set standards for gorgeousness of composition, and faded." (p. 75) [7]

However photography did have the ability to become unpredictable and spontaneous. This was achieved by making photographs related to the inherent capabilities of the camera itself. And this, Wall argues, [7] was a direct result of photojournalism, and the mass media and pop culture industries. "By divesting itself of the encumbrances and advantages inherited from older art forms, reportage, or the spontaneous fleeting aspect of the photographic image pushes toward a discovery of qualities apparently intrinsic to the medium, qualities that must necessarily distinguish the medium from others and through the self-examination of which it can emerge as a modernist art on a plane with others." (p. 76-78) [7]

The argument is that, unlike most other art forms, photography can profit from the capture of chance occurrences. Through this process – the snapshot, the "accidental" image – photography invents its own concept of the picture. A hybrid form of the "Western picture" (pictorialist photography) and the spontaneous snapshot. This is the stage whereby Wall [7] argues that photography enters a "modernist dialectic". Wall claims that unpredictability is key to modern aesthetics. This new concept of the picture, which Wall proposes, with the compositional aspects of the Western picture combined with the unpredictability that the camera affords through its shutter, can be seen in the work of many contemporary photographic artists including Luc Delahaye, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Irene Caesar, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia.

The tableau as a form still dominates the art photography market. As Fried notes: "Arguably the most decisive development in the rise of the new art photography has been the emergence, starting in the late 1970s and gaining impetus in the 1980s and after, of what the French critic Jean-François Chevrier has called the "tableau form" (p. 143) [5]

However, there appears to be only a handful of young, emerging artists working within the tableau form. Examples include Florian Maier Aichen, Matthew Porter and Peter Funch. More recently, Canadian artist, Sylvia Grace Borda, has worked since 2013 to continue to stage tableaux for the camera within the Google Street View engine. [8] [9] Her work creates 360' immersive tableaux vivant images for the viewer to explore. Through her efforts to pioneer the tableaux vivant for online exploration, she and her collaborator, John M Lynch, won the Lumen Prize 2016 for Web Arts. [10]


The 2013 film, A Field in England , [11] makes use of the effect to add to the general occult look of the film.

There is a 2014 feature film produced entirely in tableau format titled In the Crosswind . [12]

See also

Related Research Articles

Pictorialism photography movement

Pictorialism is an international style and aesthetic movement that dominated photography during the later 19th and early 20th centuries. There is no standard definition of the term, but in general it refers to a style in which the photographer has somehow manipulated what would otherwise be a straightforward photograph as a means of "creating" an image rather than simply recording it. Typically, a pictorial photograph appears to lack a sharp focus, is printed in one or more colors other than black-and-white and may have visible brush strokes or other manipulation of the surface. For the pictorialist, a photograph, like a painting, drawing or engraving, was a way of projecting an emotional intent into the viewer's realm of imagination.

Pure photography or straight photography refers to photography that attempts to depict a scene or subject in sharp focus and detail, in accordance with the qualities that distinguish photography from other visual media, particularly painting. Originating as early as 1904, the term was used by critic Sadakichi Hartmann in the magazine Camera Work, and later promoted by its editor, Alfred Stieglitz, as a more pure form of photography than Pictorialism. Once popularized by Stieglitz and other notable photographers, such as Paul Strand, it later became a hallmark of Western photographers, such as Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and others.

Anton Solomoukha Ukrainian artist

Anton (Anatole) P. Solomoukha was a Ukrainian-born French artist and photographer, and a foreign member of the Ukrainian Academy of Arts. From 1980 he specialized in narrative figuration. After 2000 he developed photo projects and is known as the inventor of a new form of expression in contemporary photography: “Photo painting”. In it he associates the photographic image with pictorial research in tableaux frequently requiring a multitude of models.

Jeff Wall Canadian photographer

Jeffrey Wall, OC, RSA is a Canadian artist best known for his large-scale back-lit cibachrome photographs and art history writing. Wall has been a key figure in Vancouver's art scene since the early-1970s. Early in his career, he helped define the Vancouver School and he has published essays on the work of his colleagues and fellow Vancouverites Rodney Graham, Ken Lum, and Ian Wallace. His photographic tableaux often take Vancouver's mixture of natural beauty, urban decay and postmodern and industrial featurelessness as their backdrop.

Figure drawing

A figure drawing is a drawing of the human form in any of its various shapes and postures using any of the drawing media. The term can also refer to the act of producing such a drawing. The degree of representation may range from highly detailed, anatomically correct renderings to loose and expressive sketches. A "life drawing" is a drawing of the human figure from observation of a live model. A figure drawing may be a composed work of art or a figure study done in preparation for a more finished work such as a painting. Figure drawing is arguably the most difficult subject an artist commonly encounters, and entire courses are dedicated to the subject. The human figure is one of the most enduring themes in the visual arts, and the human figure can be the basis of portraiture, illustration, sculpture, medical illustration, and other fields.

Erotic photography is a style of art photography of an erotic, sexually suggestive or sexually provocative nature.

Henry Peach Robinson British photographer

Henry Peach Robinson was an English pictorialist photographer best known for his pioneering combination printing - joining multiple negatives or prints to form a single image; an early example of photomontage. He joined vigorously in contemporary debates in the photographic press and associations about the legitimacy of 'art photography' and in particular the combining of separate images into one.

Fine-art photography Genre of photography

Fine-art photography is photography created in accordance with the vision of the artist as a photographer, using photography as a medium to bring something to life that only lives in the artist's mind. Simply capturing what one sees in an artistic way is the art of photography and not creating fine art. The goal of fine-art photography is to express an idea, a message, or an emotion. This stands in contrast to representational photography, such as photojournalism, which provides a documentary visual account of specific subjects and events, literally representing objective reality rather than the subjective intent of the photographer; and commercial photography, the primary focus of which is to advertise products or services.

Tableau may refer to:

Depictions of nudity

Depictions of nudity include visual representations of nudity through the history, in all the disciplines, including the arts and sciences. Nudity is restricted in most societies, but some depiction of nudity may serve a recognized social function. Clothing also serves as a significant part of interpersonal communication, and the lack of clothing needs to have a social context. In Western societies, the three contexts that are easily recognized by a majority of individuals are art, pornography, and information or science. Any image not easily fitting into one of these categories may be misinterpreted, leading to disputes.

William Herbert Mortensen was an American glamour photographer, primarily known for his Hollywood portraits in the 1920s-1940s in the Pictorialist style.

Nude photography photographs of the naked human form for any purpose

Nude photography is the creation of any photograph which contains an image of a nude or semi-nude person, or an image suggestive of nudity. Nude photography is undertaken for a variety of purposes, including educational uses, commercial applications and artistic creations. The exhibition or publication of nude photographs may be controversial, more so in some cultures or countries than in others, and especially if the subject is a minor.

Julien Vallou de Villeneuve French photographer

Julien Vallou de Villeneuve was a French painter, lithographer and photographer.

<i>Passion</i> (1982 film) 1982 film by Jean-Luc Godard

Passion is a 1982 film by Jean-Luc Godard, the second full-length film made during his return to relatively mainstream filmmaking in the 1980s.

David Seidner was an American photographer known for his portraits and fashion photography. He died of complications from AIDS on Sunday, June 6, 1999.

The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting is a 1978 French experimental mystery film directed by Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz and shot by cinematographer Sacha Vierny. The film was inspired by the themes of French writer Pierre Klossowski and makes references to many of Klossowski's works including The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, The Baphomet and “La Judith de Frédérique Tonnerre.” Ruiz was originally commissioned by a French TV network to make an arts documentary on Klossowski, but what emerged is this film, a parody of the art documentary. The film was featured in film festivals after its release such as the London Film Festival in 1979. Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting has been noted as one of Ruiz's masterpieces that challenges the boundaries of cinema and film theory.

Venia Bechrakis is a visual artist who lives and works in Athens and New York City.

Sarah Small is an American artist, photographer, singer, and film director. Currently based in Brooklyn, New York, Sarah’s work ranges from photography to her Tableau Vivant performances. She studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and graduated in 2001. In 2003, Small began studying Bulgarian vocal production in a start-up Bulgarian Women’s Choir, Yasna Voices. In 2007, Small left the larger choir and co-formed Brooklyn’s Balkan vocal ensemble, Black Sea Hotel. In 2009, she taught Portrait Photography at the Parsons School of Design, and has taught both high-school students and adults in darkroom photography. Small’s work has appeared in numerous publications including Vogue, Life, and The New York Times. Her work has been exhibited globally at venues such as Caprice Horn Gallery, The Corcoran Gallery, and the Australian Centre for Photography, and was named one of the “Top 13 Emerging Photographers” working today, by American Photo Magazine. In 2011, she was featured in The Washington Post and The New York Times for her 120-model Tableau Vivant performances.

Fine art nude photography is a genre of fine-art photography which depicts the nude human body with an emphasis on form, composition, emotional content, and other aesthetic qualities.

<i>Picture for Women</i> photographic work by Canadian artist Jeff Wall

Picture for Women is a photographic work by Canadian artist Jeff Wall. Produced in 1979, Picture for Women is a key early work in Wall's career and exemplifies a number of conceptual, material and visual concerns found in his art throughout the 1980s and 1990s. An influential photographic work, Picture for Women is a response to Édouard Manet's Un bar aux Folies Bergère and is a key photograph in the shift from small-scale black and white photographs to large-scale colour that took place in the 1980s in art photography and museum exhibitions. It is the subject of a monographic book written by David Campany and published as part of Afterall Books' One Work series.


  1. Festivals in Valois France British Library, accessed September 24th, 2007
  2. Ward, Tom (1975). Cowtown : an album of early Calgary. Calgary: City of Calgary Electric System, McClelland and Stewart West. p. 444. ISBN   0-7712-1012-4.
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  4. 1 2 Chevrier, Jean-François (2003) [1989]. "The Adventures of the Picture Form in the History of Photography". In Fogle, D. (ed.). The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography 1960-1982. Minneapolis: Walker Art Centre.
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  6. Chevrier, Jean-François (2006). "The Tableau and The Document of Experience". In Weski, T. (ed.). Click Double Click: The Documentary Factor. Munich: Haus Der Kunst and Brussels: Centre for Fine Art.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Wall, Jeff (1998). "Marks of Indifference: Aspects of Photography in, or as, Conceptual Art". In Janus, E. (ed.). Veronica's Revenge: Contemporary Perspectives on Photography. Zurich: Scalo.
  8. Parhar, Katherine (July 2016). "Farm Tableaux". Photomonitor UK. Retrieved November 19, 2017.
  9. Travis, Rebecca (July 2016). "The only thing that's changed is everything: An essay by Rebecca Travis on Sylvia Grace Borda: Camera Histories". Scottish Society for the History of Photography. Retrieved November 19, 2017.
  10. "2016 Lumen Prize". Lumen Prize.
  11. "A Field in England - Official UK Trailer". Youtube. 21 May 2013. Retrieved 22 April 2018 via YouTube.
  12. "In the Crosswind Trailer". Festival 2014. Retrieved 11 December 2014 via YouTube.

Further reading