A Day in the Life of Tableaux Vivants

Hold your breath. Don’t move. Stare straight ahead. Place your hands correctly – left over right. Double-check your collar – make sure your jewelry is in place. There, you’re ready. Now, you’re the spitting image of the portrait that’s hanging beside you. This past Friday evening, from 5 to 8 p.m., I was not Olivia Mascheroni. Instead, I was Anne Bellows, eldest daughter of American painter George Bellows – exactly as she appeared in her portrait Anne in Purple Wrap, 1921. Dressing up as a painting was part of the celebration the Addison Gallery’s 75th birthday. I, and two other girls, Virginia Sweeney and Shani Small, added to the festivities by acting as Tableaux Vivants. Literally meaning “living paintings,” tableau is usually done by one or more actors who dress up and recreate a famous masterpiece by holding a pose for a number of minutes in front of a life-size canvas and frame. In the Addison, however, we were much more liberal with our portrayals of the artworks, standing beside the canvases or even walking around among the viewers as the paintings incarnate. Reactions ranged from delight, to shock, to confusion. Some visitors took no notice of us and ended up doing double takes once they realized they were looking at real people. The vast majority regarded the tableaux with huge smiles, pointing with appreciation at our creative costume choices and our ability to recreate the images in such exact detail. I personally received several compliments about my incredible resemblance to Anne. I wore a wig, as well as a white lace dress and velvet wrap to emphasize my likeness to Bellow’s work. To complete the effect, I wore a green beaded necklace, which looked just like the necklace from the painting. Virginia Sweeney’s painting, Reverie by Thomas Dewing, hung next to my portrait. The canvas shows a woman in a brown dress, posing elegantly with her arms and hands outstretched in front of a side table. Ginia made a dress to match the one depicted in the painting, and did her hair according as well. Her makeup matched the hues used by the artist. She even posed like the figure in the painting, producing a graceful and masterful recreation of Dewing’s work. Many viewers asked her questions about the history of her painting, the artist, as well as the preparation she had gone through to prepare her tableau. In the adjacent gallery Shani Small showed off her interpretation of Crows Over a Cornfield by Kenneth Noland. The painting is abstract. The canvas is bright yellow with a large circle of black enclosing a smaller circle of blue in the center of the image. Each circle is ringed by a white border. Shani interpreted her work and chose to wear a yellow dress, yellow tights and yellow paint on her body. She carried the blue and black circle with her and placed it in front of her when she stood still. But her most interesting choice in costume was a purple, feathered mask. This mask was her personal touch to the abstract simplicity of Noland’s work. It was a lot of fun to play dress up, especially at the Addison party. I had a great time watching reactions and staring back at people when they scrutinized me. One man even thought that I was the real Anne Bellows, and asked me about my father, the painter. I was really flattered that I had fooled him, but quickly dispelled his ideas and told him the truth – that I was just an actor. Overall, I’m sure the public enjoyed the three tableaux. I can only hope that they enjoyed the performance as much as we paintings did.