Tableaux vivant is French for 'living picture'. The tradition started in the middle ages, when brief tableaux would be used within religious and state ceremonies and occasions.
Later, in the 19th Century, Parlour Tableaux became very popular in Europe as a form of social entertainment. A group of people posed to replicate and express a scene from a famous painting or play. Accounts of this activity can be found in many novels of the period, as described in a very interesting article on a blog called At The Lighthouse. There is a very detailed description of how tableaux vivants were set up in an on-line book called Home Pastimes; or Tableaux Vivants, by James H. Head.
In the Victorian era, the tradition developed into something called poses plastique, which involved actresses, sometimes with very few clothes, on posing as famous statues.
An American example of the use of the technique can be seen in the photographs of Kate Seston Matthews (1870-1956), in Louisville, Kentucky. Her photographs create tableaux vivants based on nursery rhymes, fairy tales, poetry, and other works of art. Her collection is preserved at the University of Louisville Photographic Archives, and is available to view on-line, but here are some examples which they have kindly given permission to be displayed here.