A tableau is a piece of art, which uses live artists. In this painting or photograph, the characters are arranged for picturesque or dramatic effect. The characters in this tableau appear to be absorbed and completely unaware of the existence of the viewers around them.  

What are tableaus?  

A tableau or ‘tableau vivant’ (French: [tablo vivɑ̃]); is a French word for "living picture", is a static scene, which contains one or more actors or models. The actors in a tableau are stationary, but carefully posed and they remain silent engrossed in the work they are doing. These actors wear costumes following the situation they are shown. These artists also carry with props and/or scenery, and maybe theatrically lit. Thus, a tableau is a beautiful combination of theatre and the visual arts.  

Origin of tableau:  

The word ‘tableau’ or ‘tableau vivant’ is taken from the French language, which means meaning living picture. This term was coined in the 18th century by French philosopher Denis Diderot to describe a unique kind of paintings, which were natural and had some life in them’. This type of 'live paintings’ could transfix the viewers. For viewers also, this was an experience like never before.  

Before the advent of modern forms of entertainment like radio, television, and movies, these tableaus became a popular form of entertainment, even in major cities. The tableaus became a means of showcasing a painting in the desired colours, even before the invention of colour photography. They were sometimes used to recreate artworks on stage, based on an etching or sketch of a painting. This help an artist communicate an entire story without needing the challenges of a full theatre performance.  

The origin of tableaus is related to churches, where during a ‘Church mass’, short dramatic scenes or paintings were created. These tableaus soon became a regular feature of all celebrations such as royal weddings, coronations and royal entries in the cities. These tableaus, often involved the actors imitating famous statues or paintings. This was quite similar to the modern street entertainers but in larger groups. These tableaus were mounted on elaborate temporary stands along the path of the main procession. 

However, around 1860s, the concept of the tableau was faced with a crisis. Another French painter, Edouard Manet, who is famous as a modernist painter wanted to make paintings which were more realistic rather than idealized. He outrightly rejected the concept of the tableau as suggested by Diderot. Instead, he painted his characters facing the viewer with a new intensity that challenged the beholder.  

The concept and relevance of tableau were revived again in the 1970s when a new generation of ambitious young artists like Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky started to make large-format photographs that, like paintings, were meant to be hung on a wall.   

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, tableaux sometimes featured nude models in an erotic but artistic manner both on stage and in print. Even today, tableaus continue to be a popular art form which provides the street artist with a chance to highlight their art.  


In painting and still photography, “tableau” is a figurative scene where characters are arranged in composition to maximize beauty and dramatic effect. In a tableau, the artist or a group of artists carefully posed, suitably costumed and often theatrically lit to replicate a painting or a scene from art history or literature. During the display, the artists posed don't speak or move, thus at times such staged arrangements are provided with a wooden frame outline, as a reference to the frame of a painted canvas. Tableau on stage is an interval in which all the characters of the show freeze for about thirty seconds and then again resume actions as before. This genre peaked in popularity in Europe, in the eighteenth century.