Tableaux: Bringing Pictures to Life

28 Feb

Long before last year’s mannequin challenge went viral on social media, Isabella Alden and her contemporaries struck poses like statues. Tableaux vivant (which means, literally, “living pictures”) was a very popular form of entertainment in late 19th century America.

The premise was simple. People donned costumes and recreated famous scenes from literature, art, and historic events.

A 1903 photo of a woman posing as Margaret in Faust.

A 1903 photo of a woman posing as Margaret in Faust.

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On a small scale, people performed tableaux in parlors. They selected a famous scene from history or literature, donned make-shift costumes, and struck poses while other guests observed.

Isabella Alden was very familiar with tableaux. In Julia Ried Isabella described how guests at a party …

made very free use of the wraps in the dressing-room for our impromptu charades and tableaux, and shawls, cloaks, hoods and rubbers were in inextricable confusion.

Woman in Elizabethan costume, 1903.

Woman in Elizabethan costume, 1903.

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On a large scale, churches, women’s clubs and fraternal organizations staged more elaborate tableaux on stages with scenery and props.

There were many books available to help performers turn out their best statue-like performances.

School and Parlour Tableaux by Sarah L. Stocking gave step-by-step instructions for young performers.

From School and Parlour Tableaux by Sarah Stocking

From School and Parlour Tableaux by Sarah Stocking

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While The Book of Tableaux and Shadow Pantomimes by Sarah Annie Frost featured performances with themes more suitable for adults.

Part of the table of contents for The Book of Tableaux and Pantomimes, with detailed instructions for enacting each tableau

Part of the table of contents for The Book of Tableaux and Pantomimes, with detailed instructions for enacting each tableau

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In his book, Parlor Tableaux and Amateur Theatricals, William Gill promoted tableaux as “a simple and elegant amusement,” and “a favorite entertainment of persons with taste.” He recommended that music—vocal or instrumental—be played between representations so the audience would not grow restless and to help heighten the suspense as the audience waited for the curtain to rise on the next scene.

Isabella wrote often enough about tableaux to indicate she was very familiar with the pastime. In her novel A Dozen of Them, young Joseph participated in a simple New Year’s Eve tableau party where he …

… dressed in an extraordinary manner—like a youthful musician of the olden time. Mrs. Calland had managed—nobody but she knew how—to arrange for him a most remarkable wig of soft curling hair. The mustache part was easy; a little burnt cork settled that.

Cover_Julia RiedOn a larger scale, Julia Ried (heroine in the book of the same name) helped put together a grand tableau of several re-enactments that required weeks of preparation:

I remember an animated discussion that ensued concerning the getting up of tableaux for a certain festival, which was to be held about Christmas time. Mrs. Tyndall gave minute descriptions of the style of dress needed to personate certain characters, and I suddenly became an object of importance, because I had not only seen, but participated in one of the tableaux mentioned, and could give accurate information as to whether the young lady who personated religion should dress in white or black.

Hand-painted 1905 photo of a woman in Old Testament costume

Hand-painted 1905 photo of a woman in Old Testament costume for a religious tableau.

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Rehearsals and sewing costumes consumed Julia’s days. She helped make costumes for characters portraying Religion, Queen Vashti, Quakers, and a Turkish sultan. Some of the elaborate scenes challenged Julia, because she was convinced they weren’t suitable for Christian women to enact.

Society ladies and a gentleman perform as Bacchantes, 1909.

Society ladies and a gentleman perform as Bacchantes, 1909.

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Some of the most common themes for tableaux were religious and patriotic scenes. The scenes below, performed by a church in 1920, depict the story of Jesus’s life, from the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary through his early childhood:

bethlehem-tableau-1920-scene-1

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bethlehem-tableau-1920-scene-3

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bethlehem-tableau-1920-scene-4

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bethlehem-tableau-1920-scene-5

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bethlehem-tableau-1920-scene-12

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Tableaux featuring Greek aesthetics were also popular, because the draped costumes and classical poses were considered to be the epitome of grace and beauty.

A woman in a classic Greek pose, 1903.

A woman in a classic Greek pose, 1903.

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If you’ve ever seen The Music Man you’ll remember that the mayor’s wife was devoted to performing Greek tableaux.

Even the famous Mrs. Astor, leader of New York Society, staged an evening of tableaux for charity in 1909.

mrs-astor-1908

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Women attending Mrs. Astor's society tableau in 1908.

Women attending Mrs. Astor’s society tableau in 1908.

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National organizations also dove into the tableau craze. To publicize their organization, the Red Cross staged tableaux on the south front of the Treasury Building in Washington DC in 1917:

red-cross-demonstration-with-tableaux-on-south-front-of-treasury-building-washington-dc-1917

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red-cross-demonstration_on-guard_1917

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red-cross-demonstration_where-columbia-leads-1917.

It’s possible that Isabella participated in a few tableaux herself. She was certainly able to describe the entertainment with some affection and a good deal of detail in several of her books and stories.

A tableau for women's suffrage on the front steps of the Treasury Building in Washington DC, 1913.

A tableau for women’s suffrage on the front steps of the Treasury Building in Washington DC, 1913.

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Did you know there are still organizations practicing the art of tableaux vivant today? One such organization is the New Orleans Tableaux Vivant Society. Click here to visit their site, where you’ll find news of upcoming performances and photos of past events.

If you know of any other tableau events coming up, please share by posting a comment below.


The idea for this post was suggested by Karen, a regular reader of this blog. If you have any questions about Isabella Alden or would like to learn more about something you read in one of her books, please leave a comment below.

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3 Responses to “Tableaux: Bringing Pictures to Life”

  1. Karen February 28, 2017 at 10:19 am #

    Oh, hooray!!! I’m so glad you did the research and shared these wonderful tableaux! I wonder if other readers might recall the unfortunate cascade of social disaster that followed the heroine’s appearance in a somewhat scandalous tableaux in “The House of Mirth”? I think Isabella’s niece, Grace Livingston Hill, certainly participated in these–she was an avid fan of “physical culture”, yes? I think the tableaux story I love the best of Pansy’s features a scene depicting an angel standing at a crossroads and beckoning the “hero” to follow the thorny, uphill, narrow path to righteousness. Which book was that? I can’t recall now, but it was beautifully, and as you state, “lovingly” depicted in that novel. Thank you so much for this! I very much enjoyed it and learned so much! XO, Karen

    • Isabella Alden March 1, 2017 at 8:16 am #

      You are so right about GLH, Karen; the Physical Culture movement was directly linked to popularizing tableaux, especially those with Greek themes. In Isabella’s novel Jessie Wells, Jessie and her friend Cornie want to present an evening of tabeaux and look through a book to find descriptions of scenes to enact. They come across this description:

      The picture represented a young man standing, with perplexed, undecided face, at the entrance of two roads—the one to the left, broad and smooth, sparkling with light and glowing with flowers; but down among the deeper bushes, where the light grew fainter, peered out a hideous face, representing the evil spirit, watching, with eager, gloating eyes, to see if all the light and beauty down below had lured his victim into the charmed path. The road at the right led up a rugged hill, narrow and stony, thistles growing on either side, stones and rocks and thorns all along where the feet must tread, and only here and there a dull, faint light, to make the darkness more distinct; but on the hill-top there appeared an angel with a heavenly face, looking down upon the young man with such earnest, longing eyes, and pointing backward, where a flood of wonderful light seemed to grow brighter, as far as the eye could reach.

      Does that sound like the one you were thinking of?

      • Karen March 1, 2017 at 9:11 am #

        Bingo! I’m sure that’s the one. And if I recall correctly, the girl playing the angel wasn’t exactly “suitable” for the part, but by the book’s end, had grown into a beautiful faith. Thanks for sharing that passage. So lovely. Didn’t the young man looking up at her wind up as her BF? (Spoiler alert!).

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Isabella Alden

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