Monson Arts Council logotype

The Tableau Vivant

Posted in:

Art and Theater during the French Revolution

The period of the French revolution was one when painting and theater had an extraordinary influence on the thoughts and feelings of contemporaries.  Jacques Louis David’s “Oath of the Horatii”, which we looked at in the last post in relation to revolution, is a prime example.  The inspiration he draws from the theatre was one source of David’s power in this painting.  In fact, the lines of influence are very complex, because at this time the theatre was at its most pictorial.

The French thinker Diderot at this time wrote an analysis of the nature of theatre which is very revealing.  In it he develops the theory of the “pregnant moment”, a climactic moment in the plot when a single “tableau” (or picture) emerges on stage, a moment in which the viewer can understand everything that went before and everything that is to follow.  The actors on stage take positions in this moment of highest drama, and hold them, to fix the image in the viewers mind…and then the curtain falls.  In other words, for its most powerful effect, the theatre creates a painting.

At this same time, one of the most popular pastimes among the French aristocracy was the creation of the “tableau vivant”, or living picture.  The lords and ladies of the court would gather behind a curtain to take up the positions of a well known painting; when they were ready, the curtain would rise on the frozen moment, to the delight of those in the audience.  In this case, painting is creating theatre.

David, The Death of Socrates
David, The Death of Marat

I am showing two of David’s works which illustrate the power of this dramatic concept, and its influence on his revolutionary contemporaries.  The Death of Socrates, which was his Academy entry the year following the Oath, is another good example of a work based entirely on theatrical concepts, one which could easily be a tableau vivant revealed to us by the raising of a curtain.  The action us spread frieze-like across the “stage”, stark and dramatically lit, clearly the moment of highest emotion in a story which the viewer would know by heart and easily call to mind.  If we allow ourselves to accept the concept of the painting as narrative, we can understand the power of such a work.

In the second work, the “Death of Marat”, David has applied the same principles to a contemporary political event, without the dressing of a classical story.  Again we see the strong theatrical lighting, but this time we have not paused in the midst of action, but at a moment of natural stillness.  This allows David to display the will which Marat was supposedly writing at the time of his murder, a will in which he bequeaths to the people of France his revolutionary fervor.  Clearly this is a moment which not only evokes his life and sacrifice, but also foretells the cataclysm to follow.


2 responses to “The Tableau Vivant”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Return to posts
Monson Arts Council