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Hilarious reason 19th-century painting 'The Reluctant Bride' is suddenly trending online

Although the painting is embellished with so many gorgeous details, one particular 'woman's gaze' has captivated people on the internet.

Hilarious reason 19th-century painting 'The Reluctant Bride' is suddenly trending online
Cover Image Source: Sotheby's

Storytelling is a powerful tool that artists use to transport viewers to another time, evoke emotions, or spark curiosity. In 1866, French artist Auguste Toulmouche painted "La Fiancée Hesitante" ("The Reluctant Bride" in English). Recently, this painting has been trending on social media, especially TikTok, with flurries of memes and speculative interpretations circulating online.

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Toulmouche specialized in romanticism and fashion painting, often depicting beautiful Parisian housewives in lavish floral dresses against luxurious backdrops. His works feature detailed settings with plush furniture and wealthy interiors. A reporter once described the women in his paintings as "delicious dolls," according to CNN.

Image Source: Portrait of the opera singer Rose Caron. Artist Toulmouche, Auguste. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images)
Image Source: Portrait of the opera singer Rose Caron. Artist Toulmouche, Auguste. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

The painting shows a theatrical scene in a high-ceilinged powder room adorned with floral tapestries and stately wallpaper. It features four women in flared gowns with neat buns. One adjusts her floral headband in front of an oval mirror, while two comfort the probable bride, who sits on a large chair with her feet on a low stool.

The bride wears an opulent high-necked silver-white silk gown with fur-trimmed cuffs and seams. Her golden brown hair is braided and spun into a bun. However, the most striking feature is not these details, but the bride's facial expression in the foreground.

Her face shows a skeptical, sulking expression with a piercing gaze, clenched eyebrows, and lips pressed together in disdain. Many interpret this expression as "feminine rage" or "silent fury."

Image Source: TikTok | @baroquen.hearts
Image Source: TikTok | @baroquen.hearts

TikTok especially has become enamored with the "fleabag stare" of the woman. Eddies of memes related to the painting are swirling in TikTok feeds. @adownif3rta was one of the TikTokers who first published a meme about the painting, captioning it, “Literally me when I am right” in November 2023. The TikTok picked up 7 million views. After this, dozens and dozens of people have posted about the fiery gaze illustrated in Toulmouche’s art. “You look so unapproachable, and yet, here you are,” posted @ceraunic. @amandasowens1 posted the picture with the text layover, “It’s probably because men are intimidated by you, as they should be.” @stanleytuccisnegroni also created a meme writing, “Me when the mean wasn’t even in the room with us, but I can go get him and bring him in.”

In another video that @tatyanaaboutart posted, she explained some wonderful insights about the vintage painting. “This is most likely an arranged marriage, a very common happening in the 19th century,” she said in the video, further pointing to the woman who is admiring herself in the mirror. Tatyana said this woman depicted a character who was naively dreaming about her own wedding ceremony, totally unaware of the bride’s rage. “The bride is completely alone in her sentiment of doom and unwillingness. While her gaze speaks of defiance, we sense she has no choice but to abide. The juxtaposition of hope and hopelessness is the tragedy of this painting which suggests the societal pressures of womanhood to which many must succumb.”

Thinking over a similar scenario, @storiesbehindart said, “Her direct gaze signifies her resistance to the dilemma she faces.” Therese Dolan from Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University in Philadelphia has similar thoughts about the painting. “She’s actually showing the emotion of not wanting to get married to the person that her obviously wealthy family has picked out,” she reflected, as per The New York Times, adding “What Toulmouche does so successfully is get into the psyche of the woman.”

Image Source: TikTok | @nationalgallerylondon
Image Source: TikTok | @nationalgallerylondon

Kathryn Brown, associate professor of art history and visual culture at Loughborough University in the UK, who wrote about Toulmouche’s work in the monograph “Women Readers in French Painting 1870–1890,” said when seen through contemporary eyes, the painting reveals 19th-century women in solidarity, supporting each other in “negotiating oppressive systems,” per CNN. Currently, Tuulmouche’s artwork is held in a private collection of Sotheby’s.

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