The theaters advertised them as “Tableaux Vivants.” If you weren’t snooty enough to use French, you called them “Living Pictures.”
A sort of Victorian Mannequin Challenge, they featured famous paintings, usually of the more risqué type, reproduced on stage by mostly nude female models who stood perfectly still as the orchestra performed appropriate music. In the case of Living Pictures, “nude” was a relative term. The models wore flesh-toned body stockings accented by yards of gauze.
Cincinnati theaters featured such Living Picture productions for decades, from at least the 1850s until well into the early 1900s. Although some bluenoses objected, there seems to have been very little interference from the Cincinnati authorities, mostly because these displays were seen as just another method to reproduce fine art.
The fine art in question tended toward the undraped female form as indicated by the titles of the paintings reproduced as tableaux: The Fates, The Sirens, Sappho, The Lorelei, Flight, Night, Springtime, Nature’s Mirror, Cupid’s Counsellor, etc.
The Enquirer [4 April 1865] was typical in its appraisal of Living Pictures as a valid art form:
“At the Palace Varieties there was a big crowd, and the beautiful tableaux of the Keller troupe were applauded to the echo. The exhibition is equally artistic and chaste, and might form a not inapt study for the painter and the sculptor.”
There was another reason the authorities gave the Living Pictures a pass: They were too embarrassed to interfere. When Manager John Havlin staged some Living Pictures at Wood’s Theater in 1877, Cincinnati Mayor Robert Moore insisted the models add some additional figleaf. He then, according to the Cincinnati Star [20 April 1877] brought along some reinforcements to ensure that Havlin complied:
“Mayor Moore, the Police Commissioner and Chief [Ira] Woods agreed to go behind the scenes and gaze upon the beauty re-adorned before it was exhibited to the public, and if found all right, permit the show to go on, if not to allow no eyes but their own to feast upon the sight.”
When the moment of truth came, however, none of the men would gaze upon semi-naked women in such close quarters:
“When, however, Mr. Havlin announced that the statues were ready for the preliminary exhibition, the officials declined to go behind the scenes, but said they would take Mr. Havlin’s word for it and permit the show to go on for the night. They took good seats in the audience, and after seeing a few of the pictures declared that the additions to the dress made the exhibition permissible.”
The next year, however, George Ziegler, Superintendent of Police, told Nat Hyams of Wood’s Theater to shut down the Living Pictures show [Cincinnati Star 27 Feb 1878]:
“I was a witness last night of the performance at your theater, and consider the statue tableaux of a character improper for a public exhibition, and under the law an obscene performance.”
That particular show might have closed on police orders, but Cincinnati was treated to Living Pictures shows from all of the major national touring troupes, including Louis Keller’s, Matt Morgan’s (featuring music conducted by John Philip Sousa), Napoleon Sarony’s, Koster & Bial’s, Edouard von Kilanyi’s and Susie Kirwin’s Proctor Theater show.
Well into the 1890s, the prudes still railed against the very idea that Living Pictures were art. When a national association of Methodist ministers convened in Cincinnati in 1894, David H. Mark, editor of the Western Christian Advocate magazine called upon the group to take a stand against the immoral theaters who allowed such exhibitions [Cincinnati Post 15 October 1894]:
“I allude to the late indecency known as the living picture. When I picked up my paper this morning I read that the theaters last night were packed from pit to dome and that the great attraction at one of these houses was the living pictures. I hear that this species of entertainment is becoming grosser each week. We can hardly realize the extent to which the morals of our young men, and old men as well, are being undermined by these indecencies.”
In fact, it appears that young men were not really attracted to the Living Pictures. Much of the news coverage implies that older men were the primary audience. A note in the Cincinnati Times [1 May 1876] conveys just this suggestion:
“Matt Morgan’s living pictures will show up for all they are worth at the Grand Opera-house tonight. These ‘living pictures’ are able-bodied young women, with a healthy and superabundant physical development and a small show for covering as the pictures exhibited in the saloon windows will testify. People interested in that kind of thing will undoubtedly be on hand by a large majority, and the reflection of the gaslight from the bald heads in the front row will doubtless be quite dazzling.”
As for the women who participated, the Cincinnati Enquirer [21 October 1894] sent an “Ohio Girl” known only as “C.H.”, to audition for several troupes in New York City. She found the tryouts quite trying:
“The inspection to which a candidate is subject is not a pleasant one for a modest woman. Think of being in nude tights and alone in a room with a man. There was only one reassuring fact in the whole transaction. He was more of an artist than man. He admired my fine points and criticized my poor ones.”
But, on the whole, she found the young ladies, mostly artist’s models, to be pretty normal:
“I know that not all of the girls are good girls, but a great many of them are. The proportion is about the same that you will find in any other theatrical or social combination.”
Living Pictures faded into memory around 1910, replaced by new forms of entertainment, including movies and striptease.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities