Connect with us – Art History Stories

Tableaux Vivants: A Long History of Recreating Art

Roman Potocki as the Prince and Anna Almasy as the Princess in the scene from Sleeping Beauty (detail).


Tableaux Vivants: A Long History of Recreating Art

A fanciful costume, a theatrical pose, the right light… and for a few seconds the viewer is immersed in a “living picture.” You have probably recently seen in social media some pieces of art recreated from homes. But do you know it is not only a 2020-pandemic challenge? This play has quite a long history.

In the last few weeks we all learned staying at home can be both really boring… and really creative. One of the most engaging challenges was started on an Instagram account Tussen Kunst & Quarantaine (Between Art and Quarantine) and promoted by Rijksmuseum. The Dutch action soon inspired other museums around the world, like the J. Paul Getty Museum or the National Museum in Warsaw, to spread the trend. 

Inspiring (and often hilarious) recreations of the paintings are now trending on social media… but this is definitely not a new play. Let’s see how it looked in the past, especially in Polish culture. 

Tableau vivant – Jolanta Grzybowska recreating the painting of Jean Baptiste Greuze, The Broken Jug, 1771 from the Louvre Museum. Source: National Digital Archives of Poland.

The history of this para-theatrical art form known as tableau vivant reaches back to the late 18th century. At first, it was a kind of salon game, an added attraction at a costume ball, or a way to stave off boredom on a winter’s night. They gained wider popularity, however, in the following century by appearing on theater stages (as spectacular play finales), being put on at parades and fairs, or appearing at patriotic gatherings and emboldening crowd’s spirits. All it took was an appropriate subject and a skilled arrangement. 

Recreating Scenes from Literature, History, and Theater

A group of people in historical costumes in a studio – a tableau vivant based onHenryk Sienkiewicz’s With Fire and Sword:
A group of people in historical costumes in a studio – a tableau vivant based on
Henryk Sienkiewicz’s With Fire and Sword, photo by Walery Rzewuski, 1884, source: The National Museum in Warsaw.

Interestingly, recreations of existing paintings were not all that common. In the 19th century, the main source of inspiration was literature, with tableaux vivants serving to illustrate scenes from the likes of Quo Vadis, The Trilogy, or Pan Tadeusz. Also drawn from were momentous events in Polish history, Biblical stories, and mythology. Sometimes, these scenes portrayed abstract notions like war and peace or the four seasons. 

Even when no painting was used as a template, the ideal composition was supposed to look “like a painting.” Because of this, the most highly-praised arrangements were designed by painters. After all, who better than an artist to compose groups of figures, select the colors, and see to the lighting? “Arranging these play-like pictures is the esteemed painter and trained archaeologist Aleksander Lesser,” informed the magazine Kłosy in 1871 in a piece on “living pictures”, which is based on a drama by Deotyma (Jadwiga Łuszczewska) and staged at Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki. 

Often, many hours of preparation resulted in a show barely a few minutes in length. How could these fleeting moments be immortalized? The editorial board of Kłosy commissioned Lesser to produce six wood engravings “to commemorate the spectacle and to give the magazine’s remote readers a sense of what it was like.” Meanwhile, in 1884, Walery Rzewuski photographed a group of figures in costume as characters from Henryk Sienkiewicz’s With Fire and Sword. The photos documented the tableaux vivants shown at the Teatr Miejski in Krakow and were initiated by the pianist Marcelina Czartoryska. The novel’s cast of characters was enthusiastically portrayed by a group of aristocrat amateurs, with two young painters, Jacek Malczewski and Antoni Piotrowski, supervising the composition.

Tableau vivant with Jan Zamoyski as the count from Pan Tadeusz, photography by Walery Rzewuski
Tableau vivant, Jan Zamoyski as the Count from “Pan Tadeusz”, photo by Walery Rzewuski, source: Polona Archives.

The performers taking part in a tableau vivant would freeze, motionless and silent, and the audience could add to it. Published in an 1884 edition of Kłosy was the poem Posłannictwo muzyki by Deotyma with an annotation reading: “… poem recited during a presentation of tableaux vivants at the Music Society on St Cecilia’s Day and 6 December.” The same issue also contained an illustration depicting the scenes. The caption below provided information on the composition’s creators (among them was the painter Wojciech Gerson) and on the type of music accompanying the event (e.g. “dance” music or “battle” music). 

Tableau vivant with Roman Potocki and Anna Almasy recreating the scene from Sleeping Beauty
Tableau vivant, Roman Potocki as the Prince and Anna Almasy as the Princess in the scene from Sleeping Beauty, 1871, National Library of Poland, source: Polona archives.

Making “Living Pictutres” at Home and for Events

Tableaux vivants were also put on at family gatherings. In the pages of Wędrowiec, Janusz Korczak wrote in 1900:

“These long winter evenings. How can we make them more enjoyable for our children and youngsters? There are amateur theatres, tableaux vivants, improvised concerts, board games, recitations, discussions, group reading, a bit of dancing. […] All it takes is to choose something suitable, round up a jolly group and the fun starts.”

Janusz Korczak

He recommended “tableaux vivants with general themes like the four seasons” as well as more educational ones on “historical or geographic subjects.” 

An actress poses as the subject of Jean-Étienne Liotard’s TheChocolate Girl
An Evening at a Tableaux Vivants Gallery, a charity event organised by the
Towarzystwo Opieki nad Młodzieżą [Youth Aid Society] and performed by a Krakow
amateur theatre troupe. An actress poses as the subject of Jean-Étienne Liotard’s The
Chocolate Girl,
May 1932, source: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe.

Recreating Art to Raise the Morale and Patriotism of a Country

Scenes from Polish history were staged during patriotic festivities, both while Poland was under foreign partitions and during the interwar period. For instance, in 1920, the anniversary of the January Uprising was commemorated in Vilnius with “a range of speeches, choral and solo concerts, and, to cap it off, tableaux vivants illustrating the era of the January Uprising, composed on the basis of paintings by the renowned Polish painter Artur Grottger,” as informed the magazine Pod Karabinem and published by the Vilnius branch of the Voluntary Legion of Women. 

An actress and girl pose as the subjects of Élisabeth-LouiseVigée Le Brun’s Self-Portrait with Her Daughter
An Evening at a Tableaux Vivants Gallery, a charity event organised by the
Towarzystwo Opieki nad Młodzieżą [Youth Aid Society] and performed by a Krakow
amateur theatre troupe. An actress and girl pose as the subjects of Élisabeth-Louise
Vigée Le Brun’s Self-Portrait with Her Daughter, May 1932, source: Narodowe Archiwum
Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self-Portrait with Her Daughter
Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, Self-Portrait with Her Daughter, 1789, Louvre, Paris.

Thematic tableaux vivants also appeared during charity drives. The Nowy Dziennik Daily reported in May 1932 that the Youth Aid Society was organizing a “Grand Evening of Tableaux Vivants. The most famous canvases from Europe’s museums will be reproduced by the fair ladies of our city. Shown will be works by masters like Velázquez, Van Dyck, Vigée Le Brun […] and many others.” Taking on the roles of the paintings’ heroines were actresses from an amateur theater in Krakow. Photographs preserved in the National Digital Archive show the professionalism of the costume design; but, as Maria Gerson-Dąbrowska advised in a brief manual titled Obrazy żywe [Living pictures] from 1920, costumes can be made from “bed linens, throws, curtains, shawls, muslin, or fur. All that’s needed is some creativity and a skilled hand.”

This article was published on the educational website HISTORIA POSZUKAJ maintained by the National Institution for Museums and Public Collections

Karolina Dzimira-Zarzycka

Karolina Dzimira-Zarzycka – art historian and Polish philologist. Author of popular science articles about Polish culture and women’s history, published in online magazines and journals, as Historia:poszukaj, and Szajn. Instagram: @karolinadzimirazarzycka.

Author: Karolina Dzimira-Zarzycka, Translation: Simon Wloch

This is our guest profile for occasional authors. If you have an interesting story about art to tell, send it to our Editor-in-chief Kate at You might be the next here!


More in History

  • 19th Century

    Fifty Shades of Dr. Pozzi


    There he is, in a portrait painted by John Singer Sargent – Dr. Pozzi, a dandy, a gynecologist, and a notorious womanizer. An extremely handsome man, who, if he had lived during the twentieth century, would surely have become a celebrity. Standing in his scarlet dressing...

  • 20th century

    Impressionism Features in Bombay Progressive Artists Group


    Progressive Artists Group (PAG) was an answer to the existing Indian institutional structure of exhibitions in the mid-20th century. It was a collective primarily formed by FN Souza, SH Raza, KH Ara, HA Gade, MF Hussain and Sadanand Bakre. Later, Vasudeo Gaitonde, Krishen Khanna, Tyeb Mehta,...

  • 19th Century

    Where Is Van Gogh’s Biggest Art Collection Outside of Amsterdam? In the Kröller-Müller Museum!


    The Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands, is home to the second largest collection of works by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) in the world; the first being in his namesake museum in Amsterdam. It raises the question, why does the Kröller-Müller museum own so many? Listed below...

  • 19th Century

    Painting of the Week: Firs Zhuravlev, A Fashionista Wife


    Firs Zhuravlev’s realistic paintings show all aspects of Russian life. And we can imagine the scene from the picture A Fashionista Wife in the house next to us both in the 19th century and now! Firs Zhuravlev, the reality master “A gifted painter – writes with...

  • Design

    Get Inspired: Jewelry in Rossetti’s Paintings


    Each piece of jewelry in Rossetti’s paintings worn by his models wasn’t invented but copied from actual accessories from the artist’s collection. Pieces were carefully selected to complement the garment, color, and other aesthetic features of the painting. Rossetti kept a cabinet in his house at...

To Top

Just to let you know, DailyArt Magazine’s website uses cookies to personalise content and adverts, to provide social media features and to analyse traffic. Read cookies policy