Wide Angle 18.3 (1996) 22-52
Women and Tableaux Vivants in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction and Culture
Where are the Model Artists gone?--
Those nice tableaux vivants
Of beautiful young ladies, sans
Both petticoats and pants,
Who, scorning fashion's shifts and whims,
Did nightly crowds delight
By showing up their handsome limbs
At fifty-cents a sight.
The Sunday Mercury, May 1848 1
[ Tableaux vivants are] one of the most innocent, entertaining, and instructive amusements for the young, engendering a love for and appreciation of art.
Godey's Lady's Book and Magazine, May 1860 2
In 1839, an American magazine called the Knickerbocker published a short story, "Tableaux Vivantes 'Down East,'" about a spinster in rural New England who plans a party featuring a "special new amusement" which one of the guests attempts to describe: "'It was something,' he said, 'like a theatre.... But still [End Page 23] that wasn't the name; it sounded more like 'table'; perhaps they all mounted a table; at any rate, it was very intellectual, and all the rage in the city.'" 3
This "very intellectual" amusement was the tableau vivant, a bizarre cultural phenomenon already popular in Europe as professional and amateur entertainment. Known also as "living pictures," tableaux vivants denoted figures posed, silent, and immobile in imitation of well-known works of art or dramatic scenes from history and literature. Imagine for a moment a party at which tableaux vivants are being presented: guests chatting in the parlor are suddenly alerted by music or the extinguishing of lights that a tableau is ready to be unveiled. The curtains roll up and suddenly costumed figures appear; the silence of the scene is broken by cries of appreciation and delight, or guesses as to the identities of well-known paintings or literary figures. After twenty or thirty seconds of intense physical control for the performers, perhaps accompanied by music, the curtains roll down again, one by one, until "the tableau appears to vanish entirely" 4 and the performers hasten to prepare for the unveiling of another tableau a few minutes later. According to contemporary sources, these tableau vivant performances assisted audiences in apprehending the ideal: "The realization of a picture... tends to assimilate the real with the ideal... and fill the mind with purer thoughts." 5
In the Knickerbocker story, the hostess's plans to present a sentimental program of love scenes that will put her guests "absolutely in raptures" 6 are sabotaged: first, when she is unable to locate a Romeo willing to play opposite her Juliet, and finally, when the curtain and scenery tumble down on an unconvincing Laocöon. The satire ends by warning others not to repeat Miss Peeble's mistake:
Miss Peebles, mortified at the total failure, has announced her determination to give no more parties, and even is 'not at home' to anyone except Miss Nancy Bean. It is certain that no one else, with the present raw materiel, will have the courage to attempt a similar exhibition. 7
"Tableaux Vivantes 'Down East'" takes as the object of its satire a reality of nineteenth-century American middle-class life: the pretensions of small-town sophisticates, ever eager to replicate the fashions and follies of more cosmopolitan [End Page 24] centers. More pertinent to this study, however, is the author's critique of a new fad in parlor entertainment, a trend perceived as threatening enough to warrant criticism.
The author of the Knickerbocker tale was not alone in expressing his contempt for the imported parlor game that was spreading throughout rural and urban America in the late 1830s. Author Nathaniel Hawthorne did not mince words when expressing his disapproval of a performance he observed in 1841: "We had some tableaux last night. They were...very stupid, (as, indeed, was the case with all I have ever seen)." 8 One evening in 1844, after watching nearly four hours of tableaux of "Greeks, bandits, Turks, [and] shepherdesses" in a friend's parlor, a young New Yorker recorded in his diary : "The lord preserve me...