The Painting Behind the Meme: the Reluctant Bride

Toulmouche’s aggrieved lady has become a mouthpiece for women around the world.

Auguste Toulmouche, The Reluctant Bride (1866)

In November 2023, TikTok user @adownif3rta posted the first known ‘Reluctant Bride’ meme: “literally me when i’m right”. The still image was accompanied by Verdi’s brooding Dies Irae (meaning day of wrath) from his Requiem of 1874. The post built up over 1 million likes in 10 days, and the trend quickly picked up speed, with the painting becoming representative for all women who have been spoken over, aggressively flirted with, or had their intuition questioned.

The captions added over the top of the image included “learn how to forgive and forget” replied with “eldest daughters: never” , “why is somebody like you single?” answered with “you’re gonna see in a minute, hold on.” , and “you look so unapproachable” “and yet, here you are”.

The Reluctant Bride - "literally me when i'm right" -@adownif3rta

The Reluctant Bride – “literally me when i’m right” – @adownif3rta, 2023

But who is the woman who has become a spokesperson for women’s experiences of everyday sexism? The painting La Fiancée Hésitante (1866), known as the The Hesitant Fiancée or The Reluctant Bride was created by French Academic genre painter Auguste Toulmouche. The painting is thought to have been exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1866 and the Exposition Universelle in 1867.

The bride is sat in her wedding gown with her bouquet in her lap, attended by two women who hold her hands, one of whom kisses her forehead. To the right, a younger girl looks in a mirror and holds the bridal orange blossom headdress. The work is interpreted to take place in the moments before the bride’s arranged marriage – a common practice in 19th century France among the wealthy classes – and the women are her bridesmaids, encouraging her to go through with it.

@ceraunic #eldestdaughter #thereluctantbride #girls #women #femalerage #attitude #memes #jokes #reluctantbride #reluctantbridememe ♬ sonido original – Bryan Bojorquez | Música

Toulmouche was known for his paintings of individual women, dressed in beautiful clothing in luxurious interiors, that earned them the nickname “Toulmouche’s delicious dolls” by the art critic Émile Zola. The objectification of women in Zola’s phrase wouldn’t seem out of place as a caption above the painting in this trend.

Actor and writer Nicole Daniels (@nicoleolived) included the artwork in her “not gay art tour” in September 2022, examining the potential homoerotic undertones of the work and others by Toulmouche. Daniels sarcastically says during the video “kissing was just so much a part of female culture, especially in France…. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, did I see that one? Oh yeah, that was a very friendly film!”. Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a 2019 french historical drama written and directed by Céline Sciamma, exploring the love affair between two young women, one of which is commissioned to paint the wedding portrait of the other.

The artwork is held in a private collection after being sold twice at Sotheby’s in New York in 2005.

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