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19th Century Tableau vivant 
  

A tableau vivant is a scene played by one or more actors who remain silent and motionless.
 
When Charles Dickens toured America he was entertained at grand balls which consisted of a combination of dances and tableau vivant. Dickens would have watched or participated in a dance and then presumably behind a curtain a suitably attired group armed with appropriate props would take their positions in a well-known scene from "Oliver Twist" or "Nicholas Nickleby" the curtains would be drawn back to reveal them to the audience with appropriate acclamation. Tableau vivant have declined in popularity along with costume parties, mime and dressing up although the tradition continues with dressed up characters in tourist centers.
 
Within the artistic milieu of England in the pre-First World War years arts and science were entwined. The culturally well connected families knew each other inter-married, visited each other, dressed up and played. The complex relationships between painting and photography have been well explored in numerous books, artists used photography (e.g. Degas, Mucha, Thomas Eakins, Brangwyn and David Wilkie Wynfield), photographers mimicked painting styles (e.g. Julia Margaret Cameron, William Lake Price and Henry Peach Robinson), in studios models posed either clad or nude and were often seen by the respectable parts of society as close to prostitutes. There were diverse motivations for tableau vivant and a simplistic, and very preliminary, typology is in the table below.
 
A preliminary typology of Tableau vivant
Dressing in costumeMarcus Sparling: Zouave 2nd Division, Portrait of Roger Fenton (1855)
 
David Wilkie Wynfield: Artists from the Royal Academy dressed in Venetian Renaissance clothing
FolktalesHenry Peach Robinson: Little Red Riding Hood (1858)
 
Lewis Carroll: St. George and the Dragon (1875)
Characters from popular literatureWilliam Lake Price: Robinson Crusoe (ca. 1857)
 
William Lake Price: Don Quixote in his Study (1855)
 
Julia Margaret Cameron's illustrations for Tennyson's Idylls of the King and other poems
Set pieces portraying King Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin, Vivien and other characters.
Historical eventsJames Elliott: Crowning of Henry the Seventh on Bosworth Field
 
Ludwig Angerer: Marie Antoinette in Prison (1860s)
Recreations or pastiches of famous paintingsWalter Barnes: The Apotheosis of Degas [Apothéose de Degas] which is a parody of the painting Apotheosis of Homer by Ingres (1827)
Use as models for other artworksAchille Bonnuit photographed orientalist tableau whilst working at the Porcelain Factory at Sèvres (1860s)
ReligiousGabriel Harrison: The Infant Saviour Bearing the Cross [The Cost of Democracy] (ca. 1850)
 
Fred Holland Day: [Crucifixion frontal, with Mary, Mary Magdalene, Joseph and St. John(?)] (1898)
 
Julia Margaret Cameron: La Madonna Esaltata; Fervent in prayer (1865)
Moral depictionsOscar Gustave Rejlander: Homeless (ca. 1860)
Social statementsHippolyte Bayard: Self-portrait as a drowned man (1840)

 
As further examples arrive I'll abandon or refine parts of the structure.
 

How Tableau Vivant were seen in 1854...

 
Tableaux Vivants
By Mrs. Severn.

 
Perhaps there is no intellectual amusement in fashionable life the nature of which is so little understood as the Tableau Vivant; it being generally considered as only a vehicle for display, whereas its real purpose is to arrange scientifically a combination of natural objects, so as to make a good picture, according to the rules of art.
 
A tableau vivant is literally what its name imports— a living picture composed of living persons; and, when skilfully arranged and seen at a proper distance, it produces all the effect of a real picture. It is said, that the first living picture was contrived by a profligate young German nobleman, who having, during the absence of his father, sold one of the celebrated pictures belonging to the old castle, which was an heir-loom, to conceal the deficiency, placed some of his companions behind the frame, so as to imitate the missing picture, and to deceive his father, who passed through the room without being conscious of his loss.
 
A tableau vivant may be formed in two ways; it may consist of a group of persons, who take some wellknown subject in history or fiction to illustrate, and who form a group to tell the story according to their own taste; or, it may be a copy, as exact as circum stances will permit, of some celebrated picture. The first plan, it may be easily imagined, is very rarely effective; since, as we find that even the best masters are often months, or even years, before they can arrange a group satisfactorily on canvas, it is not probable that persons who are not artists should succeed in making good impromptu pictures. Indeed, it has been observed, that artists themselves, when they have to arrange a tableau vivant, always prefer copying a picture to composing one.
 
Copying a real picture, by placing living persons in the positions of the figures indicated in the picture, appears, at first sight, an easy task enough; and the effect ought to be easily attained, as there can be no bad drawing, and no confused light and shade, to destroy the effect of the grouping. There are, however, many difficulties to conquer, which it requires some knowledge of art to be aware of. Painting being on a flat surface, every means are taken to give roundness and relief to the figures, which qualities of course are found naturally in a tableau vivant. In a picture, the light is made effective by a dark shadow placed near it; diminished lights or demi-tints are introduced to prevent the principal light appearing a spot; and these are linked together by artful shades, which show the outline in some places, and hide it in others. The colours must also be carefully arranged, so as to blend or harmonize with each other. A want of attention to these minute points will be sufficient to destroy the effect of the finest picture, even to those who are so unacquainted with art as to be incapable of explaining why they are dissatisfied, except by an involuntary liking or disliking of what they see.
 
The best place for putting up a tableau vivant is in a doorway, with an equal space on each side; or, at least, some space on both sides is necessary; and if there is a room or a passage between the door selected for the picture and the room the company is to see it from, so much the better, as there should be a distance of at least four yards between the first row of the spectators and the picture. It must be remembered that, while the tableau is being shown, nearly all the lights must be put out in the room where the company is assembled; and, perhaps, only one single candle, properly placed, in the intervening space between the company and the tableau, must be left slightly to illuminate the frame. In the above-mentioned doorway a frame, somewhat smaller than the original picture, must be suspended, three, four, or even five feet from the floor, as may suit the height of the door; or, if the door is not very high, the frame may be put one or two feet behind to gain space; but care must be taken to fill up the opening that would, in that case, show between the doorway and the frame; also a piece of dark cloth ought to be put from the bottom of the frame to the ground, to give the appearance of the picture hanging on the wall. The most important thing is, that chairs or tables ought to be placed behind the frame, so that the persons who are to represent the tableau may sit or stand as nearly in the position, with regard to the frame, as the figures appear to do in the real picture they are trying to imitate, and at about two feet from the frame, so that the light which is attached to the back of the frame may fall properly on the figures. In order to accomplish this, great study and contrivance are required, so that the shades may fall in precisely the same places as in the original picture; and sometimes the light is put on one side, sometimes on the other, and often on the top; and sometimes shades of tin or paper are put between the lights and the tableau, to assist in throwing a shadow over any particular part. The background is one of the most important parts, and should be made to resemble that of the picture as nearly as possible; if it is dark, coarse cloth absorbs the light best; but whether it is to be black, blue, or brown, must depend on the tint in the picture; should the background be a light one, coloured calico, turned on the wrong side, is generally used. If trees or flowers form the background, of course real branches or plants must be introduced to imitate those in the picture. Even rocks have been imitated; and spun glass has often successfully represented water. A thin black gauze, black muslin, or tarlatan veil should be fastened to the top of the frame, on the outside of it, through which the tableau is to be seen.
 
Care ought to be taken to conceal the peculiarities of the different materials used in the draperies, and it is even sometimes necessary to cover the stuffs used for the purpose with a gauze of a different colour, so as to imitate the broken and transparent colours found in most good pictures. This, carefully attended to, will give a quietness and simplicity to the whole, which will greatly add to the illusion.
 
Source:
 
A Lady (edited by) The Lady Companion; or, Sketches of Life, Manners, and Morals, at the Present Day (Philadelphia: H.C. Peck & Theo. Bliss, 1854), p.91-94. 
  

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