Art Term


Tableau is used to describe a painting or photograph in which characters are arranged for picturesque or dramatic effect and appear absorbed and completely unaware of the existence of the viewer

Sarah Jones, ‘The Dining Room (Francis Place) I’ 1997
Sarah Jones
The Dining Room (Francis Place) I 1997
© Sarah Jones, courtesy Maureen Paley, London
Jeff Wall, ‘A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai)’ 1993
Jeff Wall
A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) 1993
© Jeff Wall
Sir John Everett Millais, Bt, ‘Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’)’ 1849–50
Sir John Everett Millais, Bt
Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’) 1849–50
William Powell Frith, ‘The Derby Day’ 1856–8
William Powell Frith
The Derby Day 1856–8
Raymond Mason, ‘The Departure of Fruit and Vegetables from the Heart of Paris, 28 February 1969’ 1969–71
Raymond Mason
The Departure of Fruit and Vegetables from the Heart of Paris, 28 February 1969 1969–71
© Raymond Mason
Seamus Nicolson, ‘Jason’ 2000
Seamus Nicolson
Jason 2000
© Seamus Nicolson

The term was first used in the eighteenth century by French philosopher Denis Diderot to describe paintings with this type of composition. Tableau paintings were natural and true to life, and had the effect of walling off the observer from the drama taking place, transfixing the viewer like never before.

In the 1860s, the concept of the tableau reached a crisis with Édouard Manet, who, in his desire to make paintings that were realistic rather than idealised, decisively rejected the concept of the tableau as suggested by Diderot, and painted his characters facing the viewer with a new vehemence that challenged the beholder.

In the 1970s, a group of ambitious young artists like Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky began to make large format photographs that, like paintings, were designed to hang on a wall. As a result these photographers were compelled to engage with the very same issues revealing the continued relevance of the tableau in contemporary art.